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The New Yorker, 8/9/99

A "sickie" gets revived by Pearl Jam
by Jamie Malanowski

Morbidity has more or less disappeared from the pop charts, but there was a time, roughly coexistent with the hot rod era, when songs about death were prevalent enough so that record executives had a special name for them: "sickies." Successful sickies include Mark Dinning's 1960 No. 1 hit "Teen Angel" (girl hit by train while attempting to retrieve high-school ring from car stalled on tracks); Ray Peterson's 1960 Top Ten hit, "Tell Laura I Love Her" (boy killed in car race he'd entered to raise money to buy wedding ring); "Leader of the Pack" by the Shangri-Las, a No. 1 hit in 1964( boy--OK, hood--killed in motorcycle accident); and "Last Kiss," by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers (girl on date dies in car crash), which spent eight weeks in the Top Ten in 1964, and which, oddly, is now in the Top Ten again, in the form of a cover recorded by Pearl Jam. This version can be found on an album called "No Boundaries," which is an all-star compilation to benefit Kosovar refugees. It may seem unlikely that a melodramatic small-town car-crash song has been offered up as salve for an international disaster, but in its way, "Last Kiss" has always been a vehicle for pain.

"Last Kiss" was written in 1957 by Wayne Cochran, who for eighteen years had a band called the C.C.Riders and who was known during at least some of that time as "the white James Brown." An old photograph of Cochran shows a round-faced man with whide furry sideburns and a magnificent white-blond Hostess Snow Ball of a pompadour. When he got the idea for "Last Kiss," Cochran, who is now sixty and is the paster of the Voice for Jesus Family Center in Miami, was fronting a group called the Rocking Capris. "The first verse and the repeat chorus came pretty quick," he said recently. "You know -- 'Oh where oh where can my baby be?/The Lord took her away from me./She's gone to Heaven so I got to be good/So I could see my baby when I leave this world.' That took me about half an hour."

Cochran had trouble finishing the song, however, and he set it aside. "Then, about eight months later, there was a girl I knew, Jeanette Clark," he said. "On her sixteenth birthday, on her first date, she and three other teen-agers were killed in a car accident. You know what a logging truck is? And how it has a big ol' pole stickin' out the back with a flag on it? Well, they came around a curve and didn't see it, and that big ol' pole went all the way through the windshield. So I finished the song, and dedicated it to Jeanette and her mother."

Cochran recorded the song, but it went nowhere until a couple of producers heard it and decided that it would be just right for J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers. One night in the fall of 1964, with the Cavaliers' cover at No. 5, Wilson and his band suffered a head-on collison while driving to a gig in Canton, Ohio. The band's producer and road manager, Sonley Roush, died in the crash, and Wilson was badly hurt.

"Last Kiss" became a Top Forty hit again in 1974 when a Canadian band called Wednesday released it, and it was this version that Pearl Jam's lead singer, Eddie Vedder, knew. "I heard it when I was six or seven," he said the other day. "I thought it was a true story, and it made me so sad." Vedder didn't know that the Wednesday version was a cover until he found a J. Frank Wilson single at a flea market -- "next to some beer signs and a stack of old Playboys." The song moved him as it had when he was a boy, and that evening he and Pearl Jam's drummer, Matt Cameron, worked out their own arrangement of it.

This latest version replaces Wilson's wistful, Ricky Nelsonish rendering with a more sombre, haunted quality. Vedder, who was reared in a foster home, dedicated the song to his father, whom he never met. "I sang it like I was singing it to a boy," he said. Wayne Cochran likes Pearl Jam's interpretation, even though he was bitter for years over the failure of King Records to promote his original version. "I never expected that it would be a record again, " he said. "It was so locked into that time period. But there's a real spirit about that song."