When I get our lawn mower out, pull the sidearm from a holster, or unpack my wife’s hair curler, I always see the warning labels. I’m not a dummy, of course. I know better than to put my feet near the blades, finger on the trigger, or hand around the curler blades, but warning labels are a good reminder.
Written on stickers, etched in aluminum, or posted in an owner’s manual, warning labels help keep our bodies intact and neighbors friendly.
But there’s one thing that needs warning labels and doesn’t have them. Rock & Roll history includes songs that should never be heard by the newly injured, lately fired, clinically depressed, or those recently kicked to the curb. It started before King David ever coveted his neighbor’s smoke’n hot wife, but it really got going in the 1960’s. Nothing can change your mood faster, after all, than 2000 years of sorrow, or a sunbathing dame on a next-door rooftop. Here are some examples.
Jean Dinning wrote “Teen Angel” for her brother Mark in 1959 and it went to #1 in February of 1960. It tells the story of a young couple whose car gets stranded on the railroad tracks. They get away in time, but then she goes running back, and gets killed by the train.
That same year, 20 year-old Ray Peterson recorded “Tell Laura I Love Her” on the RCA Victor label. It tells the story of a high school boy who gets dead in a home-made race car. I mean, how much more romantic can ya get than that, right? Anyway, it was a Top-10 record for Peterson, who also starred on the TV show “Donna Reed”.
J. Frank Wilson recorded Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss” in 1961, joining the select group of splatter platters, and made it to #2 on the Billboard chart. Rumor had it the song was from a real highway wreck, but history placed the song before the crash. The B-side of “Last Kiss” was a funny thing you’ll have to look up on your own.
Also in 1961, John D. Loudermilk penned two top-ten tragedy songs, one for the Everly Brothers, and the other for 36 year-old Sue Thompson. The boys took “Ebony Eyes” to #8 in the U.S., and #2 in the U.K., where the Everly sound was more prevalent. Thompson recorded “Sad Movies” and it went to #5 on the Billboard charts in October.
“Laura What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got” was covered by such luminaries as Frankie Lane, Marty Robbins, Kenny Rogers, and Brook Benton, but the only singer to take it to #1 was the original songwriter, Leon Ashley. The bad news is, someone probably dies. The good news is, we still don’t know who it was.
That same year, Mississippi native Bobbie Gentry wrote and recorded “Ode To Billy Joe”, a disturbing account reflecting coming of age in the shade of the Tallahatchie Bridge. Gentry insists it’s a fictional account, and I sort of believe it, but can never hear her #1 song without wondering just what, exactly, was thrown down off that bridge…..
Perhaps the best known song for drive’n and cry’n is Bobby Goldsboro’s 1968 #1 hit “Honey”, written by Bobby Russell. Described by CNN in 2006 as the “worst sad song of all time”, it sold over a million copies in the U.S. and stayed at the top of charts for five straight weeks on three different continents. Perhaps it’s CNN that needs a warning label. If you don’t believe me, then just ask King David!
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