This teenage tragedy song tells the story of a young couple who are out on a date when their car crashes. The driver - the guy - blacks out. When he comes to, he holds the girl in his arms and gives her one last kiss before she dies. He knows she's in heaven, so he's doing his best to be good so he can see her again someday.
Sadly, it's based on a true story.
On December 22, 1962, five teenagers were riding in a 1954 Chevy Impala on Highway 341 in rural Barnesville, Georgia. The driver was J.L Hancock, a 16-year-old who was dating Jeanette Clark, also 16 and riding in the front seat next to him. Beside her was Wayne Cooper; two other passengers, Jewel Emerson and Ed Shockley, were in the back seat.
It was foggy, and by the time Hancock saw a flatbed truck stalled on the highway, it was too late. He crashed into it, going under the truck and killing everyone in the front seat; the two passengers in the back survived with serious injuries.
This was written by Wayne Cochran, who lived on Route 1941 in Georgia, which was about 15 miles away from the crash. It was a busy road, and Cochran saw lots of accidents on it. He was working on a song based on all the crashes he saw, and was about halfway done with it when he heard about the wreck in Barnesville. There was an intense emotional response from the community after the tragedy, and Cochran used those feelings to finish the song, which he dedicated it to Jeanette Clark.
Cochran's version was a local hit in Georgia, which prompted a Texas record company to record it with J. Frank Wilson and release it nationally.
Cochran named the song "Last Kiss" because it was the dramatic high point of the song, and also because there was a song out by Floyd Cramer called "Last Date."
Copies of Cochran's original version were sold out of the trunks of cars; Major Bill Smith (producer of "Hey Paula" by Paul and Paula) bought a copy and persuaded J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers to cover it.
Cochran went on to have limited success in the Miami area playing Rhythm & Blues with his band Wayne Cochran And The C.C. Riders. He wrote "Going Back To Miami," which was featured on the Blues Brothers live album. The bass player for Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders was Jaco Pastorius, who went on to revolutionize the electric bass.
In 1973, this was revived in Canada by the group Wednesday. Their version went to #1 there and earned several Juno nominations, and an RPM award for outstanding record sales in Canada. It also was released in the US the same year, selling over 200,000 copies.
Pearl Jam introduced this to a new audience when they released it as a single in 1999. Their version also went to #2.
The band's producer, Son Roush, subsequently split the group to place lead singer J. Frank Wilson with better musicians. Four months after the release of this song, the new band were touring in Ohio. At about 5:15 a.m., Roush apparently fell asleep at the wheel. The car drifted left of center and rammed head-on into a trailer truck. Roush was killed instantly. Wilson survived with a few broken ribs and a broken ankle, but went right on with the tour, taking only a week off. People still remember him coming out on the stage on crutches to sing "Last Kiss" and "Hey, Little One." The second accident is what pushed this song to #2 on the national charts.
J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers never again cracked the Top 40. Wilson later retired from music and went to work in a nursing home. He died in 1991 at 49.