In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In the early weeks of 1960, romance-induced death was apparently the cool thing in pop music. Before Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel” hit #1, the two songs that reached the top spot both told stories of death by love’s misadventure. In Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” the narrator died by gunshot because he couldn’t bear to not see his love again: “My love is stronger than my fear of death.” And in Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear,” both main characters drown in the river that keeps their tribes apart. But as far as pure melodrama goes, neither hit can compete with “Teen Angel,” a song absolutely blatant in its pursuit of tears.
There aren’t a whole lot of words in “Teen Angel.” Songwriter Jeannie Dinning keeps things as spare and economical as possible while laying out a scenario that’s almost absurd in its tragedy: “That fateful night, the car was stalled upon the railroad track / I pulled you out, and we were safe, but you went running back.” And later: “What was it you were looking for that took your life that night? / They said they found my high school ring clutched in your fingers tight.” Bad idea, teen angel.
Jeannie Dinning, who’d been part of the ’40s singing trio the Dinning Sisters, wrote the song for her much-younger brother Mark. Jeannie reportedly played “Teen Angel” for Mark at a family dinner, and he recorded it the same night. But “Teen Angel” doesn’t sound rushed or crude. It’s slow and stately, with a spectral acoustic guitar and eerie harmonies that anticipate the Beach Boys.
When “Teen Angel” hit #1, Mark, at 27, was nowhere near his teenage years. And yet “Teen Angel” works mostly because Mark manages to approximate swooning teenage heartbreak. There’s a tremulous quaver in his voice, a hesitation. It’s like he has to take a minute before admitting that his life has changed forever: “I’ll never kiss [slight pause] your lips again [longer pause], they buried you todaaaaay.” It’s pure theater, and it does what pure theater is supposed to do. It gets you.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Billy Corgan covering “Teen Angel” as part of one of those Madame Zuzu’s webcasts that he does sometimes: