J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers' “Last Kiss.”
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week in this space, we'll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we'll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours. Check out this feature's archives here.
In 1959, Mark Dinning recorded and released the eventual hit “Teen Angel,” which eventually reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February of 1960. The biggest reason for the song's long trek to the top of the charts? The songs lyrics — which describe the tragic tale of a girl whose car stalled out on a train track — weren't the type of lighthearted material found in most other pop tunes.
And to be fair, the song is pretty gut-wrenching: After being rescued from the car by her boyfriend, the girl in the song runs back to get something from it — only to get hit by a train. And, of course, to put it over the top, authorities then find that the reason she'd gone back to the car was to retrieve her boyfriend's class ring. Yeesh!
So it's no wonder, really, that the song was originally deemed “too upsetting” and subsequently banned from receiving any radio play. Still, the song somehow managed to gain popularity nonetheless. And, in the decade that followed, literally dozens of so-called “teen tragedy” songs topped the charts.
One of the more well-known songs in the genre, 1961's “Last Kiss,” it turns out, was penned by Grand Prairie's James Lafayette Tarver, whose 16-year-old daughter died in an eerily similar manner to the character in “Teen Angel.”
According to the report published in defunct Grand Prairie paper The Daily News-Texan, the compact convertible that Grand Prairie High School student Carol Ann Tarver was driving stalled on the tracks of the S.E. Fifth Street crossing on the morning of Sunday, June 25, 1961, where it was struck by a westbound train, before spinning around and colliding with the railroad's signaling apparatus. Carol Ann Tarver died instantly, the report said.
Later that summer, songwriter James Tarver began shopping the tune “Last Kiss,” which tells the slightly altered tale of a young couple who get into a fatal car wreck while on a date, to record labels. Unlike his daughter, the characters in Tarver's song managed to live just long enough to share one last embrace.
So goes that famously heart-wrenching line: “I held her close, I kissed her our last kiss / I found the love that I knew I had missed / Well, now she's gone even though I hold her tight / I lost my love, my life that night.”
While the move by Tarver to pen a song about his daughter's demise so soon after the incident may come across as a tad creepy, it was probably more of a cathartic move for songwriter than attempt to capitalize on his personal tragedy. Considering how the bulk of other, similar early-entries to the “teen tragedy” genre were frequently banned from radio play upon their initial release, doing so certainly wouldn't have seemed like an obvious route to fame or riches at the time.
By the fall of that year, the Gala label is said to have stolen the tune and slightly altered it, releasing a recording of the track from one of its own artists, Wayne Cochran. Though Billboard magazine initially gave the recording four stars, Cochran's version failed to chart at all.
Three years later, though, the song was re-discovered by Sonley Roush, who managed the band J. Frank Wilson and The Cavaliers. By that time, other tragedy-laden songs like Dickey Lee's “Patches,” Roy Orbison's “Leah” and Jan & Dean's “Dead Man's Curve” were beginning to make regular appearances on the charts. And the Cavaliers' cover version of “Last Kiss” fared much better than the original, eventually topping out at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Somewhat fittingly, the Cavaliers' version of the song was largely successful thanks to a bit of tragedy of its own. While on tour shortly after releasing the song, the band's bus was involved in a crash that critically injured keyboardist Bobby Wood and took the life of band manager Sonley Roush. Soon after the incident was when “Last Kiss” began its rapid ascent up the charts.
But the '60s success was far from the last appearance of “Last Kiss” on the charts.
In the late '90s, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder found an old vinyl single of the Cavaliers' version of the tune in a Seattle antique mall and convinced the band to record its second song about a North Texas-based tragedy one night during soundcheck before a show in Washington D.C. Though the song was initially released as a 1998 Christmas single for members of the band's fanclub, it was later officially released as a charity single in 1999.
Eventually, it wound up matching the success of the Cavaliers' version, earning the No. 2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and raising over $10 million for refugees of the Kosovo War. The song also remains the band's highest charting single by a mile.
So, while it's hard to make it through the song without one's eyes welling up a bit, we respect the way Tarver helped his daughter's legacy live on. And, thanks to Pearl Jam's charitable efforts decades later, the 1961 tragedy, it could be argued, led to a source of relief to thousands of refugees.
Talk about making lemonade out of lemons.