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Remembering 'Teen Angel' Songwriter Jean Dinning

'Kids were grappling with big issues like life, love and death in whatever way made sense to them,' recalls Sha Na Na singer Jon 'Bowzer' Bauman

March 29, 2011 3:10 PM ET
Jean Dinning with her sisters Lou and Ginger (from left) in the 1940s.
Jean Dinning with her sisters Lou and Ginger (from left) in the 1940s.

When Jean Dinning wrote the 1959 teenage tragedy song "Teen Angel," she had no way of knowing that the subsequent 10 years would be some of the most tumultuous in U.S. history. Sha Na Na played the track at Woodstock, and even though it was just a decade old at the time, it seemed like a relic from a very distant past. "Those were a big 10 years," former Sha Na Na singer Jon "Bowzer" Bauman told Rolling Stone a few weeks after Dinning died on February 22nd at the age of 86. "It was written at a time when America wasn't at war for the first time in a long time. Kids were grappling with big issues like life, love and death in whatever way made sense to them. Running back to a car stalled on the train tracks was a bad plan, but it was also one of the more likely ways that a teenager could perish in 1959. By the Sixties, when the Vietnam War started, that definitely changed."

Dinning was inspired to write the song – which was recorded by her brother Mark – after reading a magazine article about juvenile delinquents. The piece suggested that good teenagers should be called teen angels. "Being a songwriter, I said, 'That's a title,'" Dinning said in The Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits. She played the song for her brother Mark at a family dinner, and he recorded it that night. The song tells the story of a dewy-eyed teenage couple whose car stalls on train tracks. They escape, but when the girl runs back to grab her boyfriend's school ring she gets hit by a train.

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The song hit Number One in February of 1960, and a rash of copycat tragedy songs soon followed – including Ray Peterson's "Tell Laura I Love Her," the Everly Brothers' "Ebony Eyes," J. Frank Wilson's "Last Kiss" and The Shangri-Las' "Leader Of The Pack." Neither Jean nor Mark Dinning ever scored another big hit after "Teen Angel" fell off the charts in mid-1960. Jean wrote the song alone, but she initially shared credit with her husband Red Surrey per their long-standing agreement. "When we divorced 'Teen Angel' was turned back to me as part of the settlement," Dinning said. "It didn't seem like a hot property at the time and was past its peak. Not longer after, a friend called and said 'Teen Angel' was in a movie...American Graffiti."

Eugenia Dinning - who shortened her name to Jean - began singing with her sisters Lou and Ginger when she was just 10. Billed as The Dinning Sisters, the trio had a radio show in Oklahoma and later scored huge national hits in the 1940s with "We All Fell In Love on the Greyhound Bus," "A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow" and the "Buttons and Bows" from the soundtrack to the 1948 Bob Hope and Jane Russell movie The Paleface.

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