Wednesday, November 2, 2016
SHG: J.Frank Wilson: "Last Kiss"
J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers: “Last Kiss”
Entered the chart on: 9/26/64
Peaked on: 11/7/64
Weeks at #2: 1
Song at #1: “Baby Love” by the Supremes
Just when I think I’m in the clear, I get blind-sided. For example, once 1959 rolled over into 1960, I thought I was home free, and wouldn’t have to worry about being troubled by Andy Williams songs. And then “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” pops up in 1963 like a coconut falling from a tree onto my head.
Likewise, I thought the fad for “death songs” had long passed. And now here’s “Last Kiss,” taunting me like a bully on a playground. For those who don’t know, the “death song” was a fad from roughly 1959-1963 for melodramatic songs portraying the tragic death of a teenager. Such hits as Pat Boone’s “Moody River,” Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her,” Dickey Lee’s “Patches” and Mark Dinning’s much-mocked “Teen Angel” all exemplify the style, and are all various degrees of execrable.
It got so out of control that the trend generated an answer song, “Let’s Think About Living” by Bob Luman, which is oddly not as well-remembered as the songs it’s referencing. The final nail in the coffin was “I Want My Baby Back” by Jimmy Cross, a macabre parody song in which the protagonist’s girlfriend dies in a car accident, and he misses her so much he digs up her grave and crawls into her coffin to be by her side. It was not a hit, but its egregious poor taste extrapolated the general tackiness of the style to absurd degrees, and it went on to become a favorite on Dr. Demento’s radio show.
If “Last Kiss” seems a bit dated in a post-Beatles world, that’s because it’s a cover version. Wayne Cochran & the C. C. Riders originally recorded it in 1961, but failed to have a hit with it. For some reason, J. Frank Wilson’s remake struck a chord with record buyers whereas the original did not. I suppose that [sigh, again] this means I need to listen to the original as well.
Embarrassingly, I must admit I have a history with this song. My cousins owned the 1970s CanCon cover by Wednesday* and I, for some reason, loved it and played it all the time. Eventually they wound up just giving me the record.
OK, the best thing about Wayne Cochran’s original has nothing to do with the song, and everything to do with Cochran’s outrageous platinum blond pompadour. Thought it was only women who teased their hair into the stratosphere? Unh-unh!
Cochran’s original is more “rockabilly,” but both lay it on awful thick, what with the wailing female backing vocals on loan from Paul Anka. I’d swear that was Anka laying down the overdone, Liberace-like piano track on this, which sounds oddly ornate (and out of place) for this type of song.
Wilson’s voice is a lot more overwrought than Cochran’s. He never goes into Paul Anka-like histrionic fits, but he has this weepy tone that lets you know he’s trying to manipulate you into crying over this terrible tragedy. He also has kind of a pinched, nasal tone that’s none too appealing.
I can’t let Wilson shoulder all the blame for this. Cochran, who wrote it, is fully responsible for the monotonous see-saw vocal line, to say nothing of the stomach-turning lyrics. Really, the entire song makes me cringe, but perhaps never more so than the “She’s gone to heaven so I’ve got to be good, etc.” bit. Apart from the nauseating Christian ideation implied, let’s just say I don’t believe that the teenaged protagonist intends to remain faithful to his late sweetheart for the rest of his life.
Call me a cynic, but there you have it.
*they lost the original record sleeve, so they made a hand-made one out of construction paper, including painstakingly-rendered hand-written Sussex label logo in Magic Marker. I think that was the best part of the deal.