Pat Boone's "Moody River" tells the story of a man who goes to meet his love at the river by the old oak tree, and finds that she has committed suicide.
He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back
He had a hopped-up ‘cycle that took off like a gun
That fool was the terror of Highway 101
— The Cheers, 1955
Maybe this was a harbinger of things to come.
Six days before teen idol James Dean was killed in an auto accident in Cholame, Calif., on Sept. 30, 1955, the first rock ‘n’ roll tragedy song reached the Top 100 with “Black Denim Trousers” by The Cheers.
Dean, 24, had leading roles in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “East of Eden” in 1955 and “Giant” in 1956 and was the first actor to be posthumously nominated for an Oscar for his roles in “East of Eden” and “Giant.” Dean failed to capture the honor as Ernest Borgnine won for “Marty” in 1955 and Yul Brenner for the “King and I” in 1956.
Formed by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller during the mid-1950s to sing demo records for the songs that they had penned, The Cheers saw their song eventually climb to No. 6. One member of the trio was Bert Convy, who later became a regular panelist on several TV shows including “What’s My Line,” “To Tell the Truth” and “Password.” He also hosted a few game shows. He died in 1991 of a brain tumor.
Leiber & Stoller’s hits (1955-63)
Here’s a list of hits from the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller from 1955 to 1963
1955 Black Denim Trousers The Cheers
1955 Ruby Baby The Drifters
1956 Hound Dog * Elvis Presley
1957 Jailhouse Rock Elvis Presley
1957 Loving You Elvis Presley
1957 Searchin’ The Coasters
1957 Treat Me Nice Elvis Presley
1957 Young Blood The Coasters
1958 Don’t Elvis Presley
1958 Yakety Yak The Coasters
1959 Charlie Brown The Coasters
1959 Along Came Jones The Coasters
1959 Dance With Me The Drifters
1959 Kansas City Wilbert Harrison
1959 Poison Ivy The Coasters
1959 Love Potion No. 9 The Clovers
1959 There Goes My Baby The Drifters
1960 Spanish Harlem Ben E. King
1961 Stand By Me Ben E. King
1962 I am Woman Peggy Lee
1963 I Who Have Nothing Ben E. King
1963 Get Him The Exciters
1963 On Broadway The Drifters
1963 Only in America Jay & The Americans
1963 Reverend Mr. Black Kingston Trio
* originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1953
Leiber and Stoller became one of the most prolific — and successful — rock ‘n’ roll writing teams, charting hundreds of songs and writing many hits for Elvis Presley, the Coasters and the Drifters.
Teenage tragedy songs were extremely popular from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. The songs usually told the story of a teenage death or a surviving lover.
Here’s a list of the tragedy songs that reached the Top 10, from “Black Denim Trousers” through 1964. They are listed in order of when they reached the charts.
“Endless Sleep” by Jody Reynolds reached No. 5 in 1958. Written by Reynolds, this is one of the few tragedy songs that does not end in death. In the song, a couple quarreled and then the guy left his girlfriend alone that night. She swam into the sea, attempting to commit suicide. He heard her voice in the sea, saying, “Come join me baby in my endless sleep.” He ran into the water and managed to save her from the angry sea. This song was so powerful that many top East Coast radio stations refused to play it because they were afraid the action would be copied.
“Tragedy” by Thomas Wayne and the DeLons reached No. 5 in 1959. The singer relates his reaction to the death of his girlfriend. Ironically, Wayne died in a car crash in August 1971.
“Running Bear” by Johnny Preston reached No. 1 in 1959. The song tells the story of Running Bear, a young Indian brave, and his love, Little White Dove, both of whom drowned in a swirling river.
“Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning reached No. 1 in February 1960. It tells the story of a boy and girl who are driving around when their car stalls on a railroad track. He manages to pull her to safety, but she returns to the car to get something, gets hit by the train and is killed. The heartbroken boyfriend found his class ring in her hand.
“Tell Laura I Love Her” by Ray Peterson landed at No. 7 in 1960. The story centers on Tommy, a teenager who is in love with Laura. He enters a car racing championship, planning to use his winnings to buy Laura a wedding ring. His car overturns during the race and bursts into flames. Before Tommy dies, he says, “Tell Laura I love her and my love for her will never die.”
“Moody River” by Pat Boone reached No. 1 in 1961. The song tells the story of a man who goes to meet his love at the river by the old oak tree, and finds that she has committed suicide. A note on the riverbank explains that she has cheated on him. He then looks into the river and sees his reflection looking back at him. This was the sixth and last of Boone’s No. 1 hits.
“Patches” by Dickey Lee rose to No. 6 in 1962. The hit reveals the story of teenage lovers from different social classes whose parents forbade their love. The girl drowns herself in the “dirty old river.” The singer concludes: “It may not be right, but I’ll join you tonight/ Patches I’m coming to you.” As with many of the tragedy songs, many radio stations refused to play it because of the suicide aspect.
“Ebony Eyes” by the Everly Brothers jumped to No. 8 in 1963. The song centers on a young soldier who was flying his beautiful “Ebony Eyes” to him so they could get married. The airplane, however, crashed, killing the girl.
“Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las climbed to No. 1 in 1964. The song is about Betty who is dating Jimmy, the leader of a motorcycle gang. Betty’s love turns to frustration when her parents disapprove of Jimmy because he comes from the wrong side of town. Her parents order her to stop seeing him. She tells him, and as he speeds away he crashes his motorcycle and dies.
“Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers jumped to No. 2 in 1964. Written and originally recorded by Wayne Cochran of Thomaston, Ga., in 1961, the song bombed. It was re-recorded and updated in 1963. The song is about 16-year-old Jeanette Clark and J.L. Hancock. Their car hit a tractor-trailer on a road in Barnesville, Ga., when they were on a date a few days before Christmas in 1962. Hancock and Clark’s friend, Wayne Cooper, who was riding with them, was killed instantly. Two other friends, Jewel Emerson and Ed Shockley, survived with serious injuries. Wayne Cochran’s drummer had been dating Clark’s sister at the time of the wreck. It was recorded by Wilson and the Cavaliers in 1964 and became a hit. The song tells the story of two teens out for a drive who get into an accident. As the girl lay on the ground dying, her boyfriend gave her one last kiss.
“Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan & Dean climbed to No. 8 in 1964. It’s the story of a teen drag race between a Corvette Sting Ray and a Jaguar XKE that went awry in Los Angeles at Dead Man’s Curve. The song ends with the driver of the Sting Ray relating his last memories of the ill-fated race to an ER physician. Two years after this song charted, Jan Berry of Jan & Dean had a near fatal accident in his Sting Ray near Dead Man’s Curve.
Barry Levine writes about music and the movies for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.