Although murder, misfortune and mortality have always been popular themes in music, Reynolds 1958 hit Endless Sleep ushered in a golden era of largely teenage variations on the subject of death.
The craze reached its zenith in the 1960 when Ray Peterson's Tell Laura I Love Her (which prompted Marilyn Michaels to answer Tell Tommy I Miss Him), and Mark Dinning's Teen Angel both charted despite featuring fatalities.
In the UK, Johnny Leyton, whose cover of Tell Laura I Love Her had lost out to Richie Valance's version the previous year, hit with Johnny Remember Me in 1961. Although it didn't explicitly say that the girl he'd 'lost'was dead the echoey chorus left little doubt that the gal was in the ground.
Produced by Joe Meek and written by Geoff Godard the track had apparently been blessed, from beyond by the grave, by Buddy Holly. The pair contacted the bespectacled plane crash victim via weegee board and on hearing their plans for Johnny Remember Me apparently commented "See you in the charts". (See Death Discs by Alan Clayson).
The following year another biker bit the dust in The Shangri La's delirious teen melodrama The Leader Of The Pack, which, with its kitchen sink and all production, surely represented the genres artistic high water mark.
What follows is a random, and by no means definitive, list of some of my favourite Death Discs:
Endless Sleep: Jody Reynolds
Growing up in Oklahoma Jody Reynolds first love was Western Swing.
As he told John Stafford:"I sure did listen to the radio. I loved western swing. Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Eddy Arnold - I loved stuff like that."
Moving to Arizona in the early fifties Reynolds tastes changed when he heard Elvis Presley on the radio.
Although Reynolds didn't record Endless Sleep until 1958 he told the Phoenix New Times in 2001 that he wrote it in 1956, right after listening to Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel five times in a row on a jukebox.
In doomy echoey style the song told the tale of a boys desperate search for his girl, who he fears has drowned herself after they had had a fight. It was issued by Demon Records in March 1958.
"Demon was in Los Angeles. Herb Montei, who later became my manager had a publishing company in Hollywood. I'd been playing rockabilly or rock 'n' roll or whatever you want to call it for about three years, and I was playing a date in San Diego and a guy at this club said to me, "If you want to record, you should send some stuff to Herb Montei." I didn't have many songs, but I sent him a couple of things and he turned them down. Then I made a demo of Endless Sleep and he liked it a lot, so he found the guys at Demon Records for me."
Apparently the record executives in LA were unconvinced that suicide would sell and persuaded Reynolds to end the song with the boy running into the ocean and rescuing his girl. Ironic that a record that could claim to be the first of the teenage death disc's nobody actually died after all, though the gloomy mood of the record swamps its nominal happy ending.
The people at Demon also felt that although Reynolds was a more than capable guitarist the record people decided to draft in Al Casey:
"I played my own guitar all my life but on that session, for some reason, the record people just wanted me to stand there and sing and not play"
Endless Sleep reached number 5 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart. In the UK it provided Marty Wilde with his first hit entering the UK charts in June 1958 it reached number 4 and stayed in the charts for fourteen weeks.
Reynolds continued to record through out the fifties and early sixties. In 1963 Reynolds recorded Stormy written and produced by Lee Hazlewood.
The following year Bobbie Gentry would make her debut recordings duetting with Reynolds on Stranger in The Mirror/ Requiem for Love.
Reynolds would never again repeat the sucess of his first recording and eventually quit the music business to work in real estate in Palm Springs.
He died on the 7th November this year aged 75.
Further reading here and here
Ode To Billie Joe: Bobbie Gentry
Musical prodigy, Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter and her early life was spent in rural hardship in Chicksaw County, Mississippi.
Gentry's grandmother traded a cow to provide the piano on which Gentry wrote her first song, My Dog Seargent is a Good Dog when she was just seven years old.
In 1955 14 year old black teenager Emmet Till was brutally beaten and then shot, a 75-pound cotton gin fan was tied to his neck with barbed wire to weigh down the body, which was then dropped into the Tallahatchie River ,where it was subsequently found by fishermen. Those responsible were acquitted and later admited to the killing. At the insistence of Mamie Till, Emmet's mother, photographs of the boys beaten and disfigured body appeared in the press. This horrible event caused widespread outrage at the treatment of African Americans.
Bob Dylan articulated this disgust in the song The Death Of Emmet Till in 1962.
One wonders what impact it had on young Bobbie Gentry. Is it, perhaps,in some slight ghostly way, on Mama's mind in Ode To Billy Joe when she comments: "Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge"?
In 1957, when she was thirteen, Gentry moved to California to be with her mother , graduating from Palm Valley School in 1960 Gentry funded attendance UCLA (studying philosophy) and the Los Angeles Conservatory by working as a nightclub singer, under the name Bobby Gentry, and as a secretary.
As already mentioned she made her recorded debut in 1964 with Jody Reynolds.
Subsequentlty Gentry continued to perform and in early 1967 Capitol Records producer Kelly Gordon heard a demo and signed her to Capitol.
Released later that year her debut single for Capitol was Mississippi Delta/Ode To Billy Joe. Despite the A Side being a scorching swampfunk classic it was the sparse, sineous, southern gothic of the B Side that the DJ's warmed to and which climbed to the top of the pop charts.
In the wake of Ode To Billy Joe' s success I believe all subsequent Gentry singles had the intended playside on the B- side.
In many respects Ode To Billy Joe is not typical of the death disc genre, in contrast to the teen histrionics of, say, Leader Of The Pack, Ode to Billy Joe deals with death, a suicide at that, with almost callous offhandness. The demise of Billy Joe MacCallister in the Tallahachie River treated as just another piece of county gossip. The family patriach best sums up the mood when he says: "Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please"
Ode To Billy Joe won Gentry three Grammys (Best New Artist, Best Vocal Performance Female, Best Contemporary Female Solo Vocal Performance) whilst the song itself won a further Grammy for arranger Jimmie Haskell.
The other big Grammy winner of 1967 was fellow Capitol records signing, Glen Campbell ,who picked up awards for both Gentle On My Mind and By The Time I Get To Phoenix.
Capitol paired Gentry and Campbell the following year. The sleeve notes of the resultant album gushed:
"They have the affinity, one for the other, that's unusually rare - striking to hear because of it's rightness and it's absolute simplicity.....singly they seem like the first of a new breed, these two, whose every effort runs true - writing, playing, singing - performing what they feel as they feel it, so that what emerges rings true. these talents stay with the taem too,losing nothing and gaining a new dimension."
In 1970 Gentry scored a hit with Fancy which tells the story of a young impoverished womans journey from poverty to wealth by being "nice to the gentlemen."
Recorded at Rick Hall's Fame studio's it featured Travis Wammack on guitar: " I played her little guitar on that. Rick asked her, he said 'Bobbie would you mind if Travis played your little bitty Martin? I'd like to try and duplicate the Ode To Billie Joe sound. She said 'sure'. it took me a while because it was a little bitty small scale double eighteen Martin guitar." (from Country Got Soul 2 sleevenotes)
The B side of Nancy and Lee's 1971 Reprise release Did You Ever? Back on The Road is a from- beyond- the- grave- twist- in - the- tale record.
In 1972, in the wake of Brian Wilson's mental collapse, Jacks was approached to produce the Beach Boys. Jack's recalled Seasons In The Sun :
Hip Hop probably has the largest body count of any musical genre with murder a lyrical staple, Eminen, however, channelled the spirit of The Shangra La's in this masterstroke of storytelling.
Born in Kansas City Marshall Mathers aka Eminen aka Slim Shady moved to a predominantly black neighbourhood in East Detroit when he was eleven years old.
Unlike some other white rappers like say, Vanilla Ice, hip hop was as natural to Eminen as the blues were to Elvis Presley or Jimmy Rodgers. Like these two before him he had absorbed a style more usually associated with another race and used it to tell his own story. As he says in his forthcoming book The Way I Am :" In real life rap is all that I really know how to do well."
" An underground following has to be there, you've got to start off there or you don't have nothing to fall back on" said Eminen (from The Hip Hop Years A History of Rap by Alex Ogg with David Upshal).
says Stan admist the sound of car tyres squealing, crashing and splashing in a production that the sacred Shangra La's themselves would have been proud of.
The picture accompanying this post is from Ingmar Bergmans The Seventh Seal.