Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: In the early '60s, when there were a lot of big hits where someone died or was killed, one singer answered the trend with one titled, I think, “Let's Think About Life.”

Can you tell me the artist, year, etc. Also, talk a bit about how many death songs there were back then, and if there were any out before the '60s.
—Tricia Woodside, York, Pa.

DEAR TRICIA: Recorded songs of misfortune and catastrophe have been around for at least a hundred years.

However, unlike those 1960 “teenage tragedies” you recall, nearly all of the ones that became popular before the rock and roll era were inspired by real life events.

The first glut of ill fortune tunes appeared right after the "Titanic" went down. The British luxury passenger liner sank on April 15, 1912, en route to New York from England, during its maiden voyage. This famed disaster inspired at least a dozen recordings, some (i.e. “The Titanic” by Ernest Van Stoneman) became quite popular.

With the introduction of the 45 rpm single (1949), and the mid-'50s rise of rock and roll, the music industry recast their marketing plan, primarily crafting their product for teenagers. And though far more common near the end of the decade, one fictitious account of death and disaster, with a rock beat, made the Top 10 as early as 1955.

That trailblazing song is "Black Denim Trousers," by the Cheers, a tale of a reckless biker who "was the terror of Highway 101," at least until "he hit a screamin' diesel [train] that was California bound." Call him the original "leader of the pack."

That same year, Donald Woods and the Vel-Aires, gave us "Death of an Angel," a tune that failed to make the charts but really helped kick start this genre. A vastly modified remake of "Death of an Angel" did chart for the Kingsmen, in the summer of 1964.

The first rock era tune of tragedy to reach No. 1 is actually a folk song: "Tom Dooley," by the Kingston Trio, a late 1958 release. Also that year, Jody Reynolds cracked the Top 5 with "Endless Sleep," and, in "The Ballad of Thunder Road," actor Robert Mitchum sang of a young boy's last home brew run ("He left the road at 90 [mph], that's all there is to say. The devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day.")

Then came 1960, clearly “the” year of tragedies told in song.

Established stars and newcomers alike quickly jumped on the tribulation tune bandwagon. Patti Page ("One of Us [Will Weep Tonight]"), Ray Peterson ("Tell Laura I Love Her"), Bobby Marchan ("There Is Something on Your Mind"), Bobbettes ("I Shot Mr. Lee"), and Bobby Darin ("Artificial Flowers" and "Clementine") all rode the charts with musical tales of death and doom.

It may be a reach, but the list could also include “Big Iron” and “Five Brothers” (Marty Robbins), “Mr. Custer” (Larry Verne) and “Mack the Knife” (Bobby Darin).

So prevalent were these songs then, that there is not a single day of the entire year 1960 that does not have at least one cryin' and dyin' tune among the nation's top-selling hits.

In a humorous analysis of this trend, Bob Luman recorded "Let's Think About Livin'," which zoomed right into the Top 10 in 1960 ("If we keep on losin' our singers like that, I'll be the only one you can buy").

Unlike reality, where one's untimely demise is no laughing matter, we often find humor in some of these songs. The more the singer moans, groans, wails, and whines — known as "crying songs" — the more riotous our reaction. Likewise, the singers and songwriters probably couldn't keep a straight face either, when concocting some of those story lines.

IZ ZAT SO? Amazingly, someone meets their maker in each of the first three No. 1 hits of 1960: "El Paso" (Marty Robbins), "Running Bear" (Johnny Preston), and "Teen Angel" (Mark Dinning).

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