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'Last Kiss,' the '60s Tearjerker, From Wayne Cochran to Pearl Jam

By Philip Trapp on Apr 07, 2016 10:23 PM EDT

"Last Kiss," a teen death ballad from the early 1960s by Wayne Cochran, had attained unlikely longevity by the end of the 20th century. A dud on initial release, the ditty was picked up by various '60s and '70s pop vocal groups before its serendipitous revival by '90s grunge icons Pearl Jam.

The song tells the tale of teenage lovers entangled in a car crash, the narrator scarcely surviving and recounting the final moments of his sweetheart's life. R&B crooner Cochran penned the tune in that era's style of popular "splatter platters," recording the first of his four versions in 1961.

As Cochran told MTV News in 1999, the song's origins were inspired by a perilous span of rural highway near his then-home of Thomaston, Georgia:

"There were two or three accidents a year there and people were always getting killed," he said. "It was horrible. ... So I said, 'I'm gonna write a song about a car wreck.'"

Cochran's mournful melody failed to chart, gaining only regional recognition. Conjecture and folklore challenge the number's true origins -- plausible rumors suggest the balladeer's bandmates had a hand in the arrangement; outlandish theories posit the composition's outright theft. Comparison reveals its opening lines as adapted from 19th-century songwriter Septimus Winner's "Der Deitcher's Dog."

"Last Kiss" earned its first national success with a 1964 rendition by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers. Reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the song launched the band commercially and became the title track of their debut album. A decade later, Canadian vocal group Wednesday (also known as Wenzday) again made the song a hit, their 1974 version peaking on the Hot 100 at No. 34.

Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder stumbled over an old 45 of the song at Seattle's Fremont Vintage Mall. Enthralled by the tragic tune, he introduced it to the band. Bassist Jeff Ament recalled its recording to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the quintet swiftly hashing out a no-frills cover take at a 1998 soundcheck:

"It was the most minimalist recording we've ever done," Ament said of "Last Kiss." "Ed played us the song and we played along with it a couple of times backstage during the last tour. And then one night we went out and played it in front of a crowd for the first time." [...] "The third time we played it live at a soundcheck in Washington, D.C., and that's what you hear on the record."

Intended as a limited single for the band's fan club, the Pearl Jam adaptation leaked to radio in 1999 and rocketed to No. 2 on the Hot 100 and No. 4 on the Top 40. Due to the unexpected demand, the band released a commercial single version that June, donating all profits to Kosovo War refugees.

The song remains Pearl Jam's highest charting hit and their most implausibly popular single. Guitarist Stone Gossard spoke of the song's acclaim to the Boston Globe, discussing its surprise fame:

"It's very interesting. We recorded that at a soundcheck on a little digital recorder. It was for the fan club. You can try album after album to write a hit and spend months getting drum sounds and rewriting lyrics, or you can go to a used record store and pick out a single and fall in love with it."

We want to hear from you. Let us know your favorite recording of "Last Kiss" in the comments section below.

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TagsLast Kiss, Pearl Jam, Wayne Cochran, J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers

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