[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of three articles taking up the topic of “death discs” of the late ’50s and early ’60s, and this item considers songs with a country-western theme. To read the first article in the series — dealing with vehicle-related deaths — click here.]
From the late 1950s through the 1960s, one of the most unusual and unconventional pop music cycles took place in the form of a “death rock” genre that featured songs in which the protagonist or a loved one met an unfortunate death.
Many of the genre’s recordings are referred to as “teenage tragedy songs”, and that designation fits most of the songs that tell about deaths in vehicle accidents, plane crashes or drowning, but the “teen” tag doesn’t always fit when “death rock” ventures into the country-western arena.
This article takes a look at 10 of the C&W “death discs” that reached the Top 40 of Billboard Magazine’s pop music charts, although many of them were also big country hits as well. The first such song was “Tom Dooley” by The Kingston Trio, which attained chart-topping status in the autumn of 1958.
For the most part, the listed items were performed by popular C&W singers, although all also achieved mainstream pop music success, and the top artist in this subgenre was undoubtedtly Marty Robbins, who sang four of the selections.
Born Martin David Robinson in Glendale, Ariz., before taking his familiar stage moniker, he was one of the first C&W artists to have a major impact on the pop music charts. The singer-guitarist-songwriter had his own radio and TV shows in Arizona in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and he first recorded for Columbia Records in 1952. Also an avid stock car racer and enthusiast, he became a Grand Ole Opry regular in 1953.
Following are four of Robbins’ C&W death-related discs, all of which reached the Billboard Top 40 in 1959 or 1960, and to hear any of the songs (with the year and top chart position listed), simply click on the title.
- “EL PASO” (Marty Robbins, No. 1, 1959) … written by Robbins, it was a pop chart-topper for two weeks and a No. 1 country song for seven weeks.
- “BIG IRON” (Marty Robbins, No. 26, 1960) … also written by Robbins, it was originally released as an album track on Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs in 1959, then as a single in early 1960.
- “BALLAD OF THE ALAMO” (Marty Robbins, No. 34, 1960) … from “The Alamo” starring John Wayne, it spent 13 weeks on the pop charts, and another rendition by Bud & Travis reached No. 64.
- “THE HANGING TREE” (Marty Robbins, No. 38, 1959) … written by Mack and Jerry Livingston, it was the theme song from the film starring Gary Cooper, with orchestration by Ray Conniff.
Other “death discs” with a country-western theme that reached the Billboard Top 40
- “TOM DOOLEY” (Kingston Trio, No. 1, 1958): This chart-topper was performed by a folk trio formed in San Francisco in 1957, consisting of Dave Guard (banjo) and Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds (guitars). Guard left the group in 1961 and was replaced by John Stewart. The traditional U.S. folk song was written in 1868 under the title “Tom Dula”, and the lyrics are based on an 1866 North Carolina case in which Confederate veteran Tom Dula was convicted of the murder of Laura Foster and was and hanged on May 1, 1868. This rendition topped the national pop and R&B charts, and was a big C&W hit as well, and earlier recordings of the song date back to the 1920s.
- “BIG JOHN” (Jimmy Dean, No. 1, 1961): Originally performed by Jimmy Dean and composed by Dean and Roy Acuff, the single reached the top of three Billboard charts (pop, country and adult contemporary), and it won the singer the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording. Although the song reflects American folklore, it was also a No. 2 hit in the United Kingdom. The singer — also known for a restaurant chain and a line of sausage — was born in Plainview, Texas, and he led his own band, The Texas Wildcats, in the early ’50s before going solo.
- “RINGO” (Lorne Greene, No. 1, 1964): This single was the first to reach the top of the Billboard pop charts before making the C&W listings. Written by Don Robertson and Hal Blair, the recording also topped the Easy Listening chart for six weeks. In the spoken-word performance, Greene narrates a first-person account of a Western lawman’s relationship with a notorious outlaw, presumably Johnny Ringo, but even though the lyrics don’t reflect actual historical events, it didn’t minimize the song’s popularity. The performer, a native of Ottawa, was the chief newscaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Company in the 1940s, and he later gained fame in the U.S. as an actor in films and the classic Bonanza TV series.
- “THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE” (Gene Pitney, No. 4, 1962): Although the song has the same title as a 1962 film starring John Wayne and James Stewart, it wasn’t used in the movie. After release of the film, Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote a song inspired by the movie’s plotline, and the pop singer from Hartford, Conn., was selected to perform it. Pitney formed his own band at Rockville (Conn.) High School, and he recorded under the name Billy Bryan until using his own name in 1960 on the Festival label. His songwriting credits include “Rubber Ball” for Bobby Vee, “Hello Mary Lou” for Rick Nelson and “He’s A Rebel” for The Crystals.
- “THE BALLAD OF BONNIE AND CLYDE” (Georgie Fame, No. 7, 1968): The singer, born Clive Powell in Lancashire, England, began as a pianist with Billy Fury’s backup group, The Blue Flames. The song, written by Mitch Murray and Pete Callander, was inspired by the film “Bonnie And Clyde” starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, but it wasn’t sung in the film. The recording features many instruments and sound effects that reflected sirens, gun battles and car chases.
- “DON’T TAKE YOUR GUNS TO TOWN” (Johnny Cash, No. 32 pop, No. 1 C&W, 1959): This was one of many crossover hit singles for the C&W icon, as it not only topped the Billboard country charts for six consecutive weeks, it also was a Top 40 recording. The Kingsland, Ark., native’s multi-faceted talents spread into many music genres, including gospel, blues, folk, rockabilly, country and rock ‘n’ roll, and this self-written song is about a young cowboy, who ignores the advice of his mother and takes his guns to town with fatal results.
[You may subscribe to Bill Herald’s oldies pop music columns — free of charge — by clicking on “Subscribe” near the top of the article, after which you will receive e-mail notification each time a new item is published.]