“Last Kiss” (1961)
Written by: Wayne Cochran Recorded by: J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers
Twenty-year-old J. Frank Wilson did not seem destined for rock and roll greatness. Recently discharged from Goodfellow Air Force Base, in San Angelo, Wilson had a steel plate in his head from a childhood accident and a family back home in Lufkin. But he could sing, and when he heard that a local band called the Cavaliers was looking for a new front man, he auditioned, got the job, and decided to stick around town for a while. The Cavaliers played proms, dances, and nightclubs all over the area, and they soon picked up a manager from Midland named Sonley Roush, who set about trying to find them a hit.
Around that time, a song by Wayne Coch-ran, of Barnesville, Georgia, started getting airplay on a radio station in Odessa. A maudlin “splatter platter” reminiscent of 1959’s “Teen Angel,” it had been inspired by the deaths of three teenagers who were killed when their car crashed into a logging truck. Though Roush didn’t much care for the song, teens clearly loved the melodrama of death—week after week, it won the Odessa station’s popularity contest for new releases—and Wilson’s voice was perfect for the pleading vocals: “Well, where oh where can my baby be?” So in 1964 Roush had the Cavaliers record the number exactly as Cochran had done it. The song came out on three different labels, and the third release, on Josie Rec-ords, was the charm, climbing to number five nationally.
That October, as the band was heading to a gig in Canton, Ohio, Roush fell asleep at the wheel and drove head-on into an eighteen-wheeler, killing himself and seriously injuring the others. The deadly crash made the song about a deadly crash an even bigger hit, taking it all the way to number two. Wilson was never able to replicate the success on his own; eventually he returned to Lufkin and took a job as a nursing home orderly, dying of complications from alcoholism at age 49. But the song itself had another resurgence. In 1999 Pearl Jam took it once again to number two on Billboard’s Hot 100, after singer Eddie Vedder discovered a 45 of the song in an antiques store.