Teen Tragedy Songs: The '50s and '60s

Dark tunes struck a chord with young people

Here's a list of the best teen tragedy songs of the '50s and '60s, hand-picked by your guide. It's subjective, of course, but it covers the early days of rock 'n' roll in search of the saddest and most morbid teen songs. For the most part, tragedies must be specific to appear here, and stories must be clear, while death songs not specifically aimed at teens (e.g., covers of "St. James Infirmary") are not included.

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"Last Kiss," by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers

Woman in a Vintage Car
Neva Močnik / Getty Images

This is the best of the teen tragedy classics, not coincidentally because the original was based on a real car crash. Not exploitative in the least, this song features a truly heavenly backing vocal and some great drum work. It's as heart-wrenching as any movie death scene yet maintains its dignity.

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"There Is Something on Your Mind (Pt. 2)," by Bobby Marchan

The first half of this New Orleans classic is a fairly standard take on Big Jay McNeely's R&B hit, but the second half careens into a violent urban tale of betrayal and revenge. It's not specifically aimed at teens, but since so many teens were tuned in to R&B at the time, Marchan's tragedy song may as well have been.

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"Running Bear," by Johnny Preston

It may be set in the past (it comes with a complete list of Native American cliches), but this Big Bopper-written track deals with themes as timeless as "Romeo and Juliet": Warring tribal families won't let their kids date. It's a novelty record, but it has an almost poetic ending. And unlike other teen tragedy songs, this one really rocks.

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"Ebony Eyes," by Everly Brothers

Not one of the Everlys' best songs, but that's not an insult, given the astonishingly high quality and effortless beauty of the duo's classic hits. Rather, this is a plane crash twist on the teen tragedy song, done slowly and reverently without a hint of camp. 

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"Leader of the Pack," by Shangri-Las

One of the absolute greats, with a wonderfully dramatic spoken intro and a truly heartbreaking story line. The lead singer is indirectly responsible for her beau's death, and the single cleverly works in the "bad boy" motif as well. It's a little corny, especially with the "Look out!" climax, but that's part of the teen tragedy appeal.

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"Tell Laura I Love Her," by Ray Peterson

This plot is a little more advanced than most. Johnny wants to earn money to buy his lady some nice things, including an engagement ring (the heartbreak of it all!), so he enrolls in a stock-car race. Apparently, he forgot to learn how to race stock-cars first. Oops. Operatic and a little embarrassing, but it endures, somehow.

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"Teen Angel," by Mark Dinning

One of the most popular teen tragedy songs, this is a pretty straightforward encapsulation of the whole "car crash" subgenre: hushed, spoken verse, angelic choruses. In this song, his girlfriend seals her fate by going back to get Mark's school ring, a move that is either incredibly romantic or really stupid. (Couldn't he just get another ring?) Mark had a second teen tragedy hit with "The Pickup," a lurid tale of a man who can't bring himself to love the town tramp. Predictably, she kills herself.

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"Patches," by Dickey Lee

This shouldn't be confused with a different but equally heartbreaking Clarence Carter song. Here, Dickey falls for a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. When his parents object to him marrying out of his station, he breaks up with her. She commits suicide, and as the song ends, Dickey is about to take the same plunge. It's sappy but socially aware tragedy tune. Dickey also hit with "Laurie (Strange Things Happen)," where he unwittingly dates a ghost in a twist on the old Urban Legend.

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"Endless Sleep," by Jody Reynolds

This prime, fascinating bit of slow rockabilly is as dark, murky, and swampy as the sea that tries to take Jody's sweet baby. The only reason this excellent tune, which has been covered more often than any other teen tragedy song, is so low on this list is because it's not technically a tragedy: At the end, Jody jumps in and saves his woman. Note, however, that the record company insisted on the happy ending; in the original written version, she drowns. 

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"I Want My Baby Back," by Jimmy Cross

There are better teen tragedy parodies out there - the Cheers' "Black Denim Trousers" and the Detergents' "Leader of the Laundromat" come to mind, but there should be some recognition for the audacity of this record, which takes the car-crash theme to its logical (but disgusting) extreme. One word: graverobbing. It's probably just as well there's no sound file for it on the web.