Jean Dinning, Songwriter of Pop Tragedy ‘Teen Angel,’ Dies at 86


Published: March 12, 2011

That fateful night the car was stalled upon the railroad track

I pulled you out and we were safe but you went running back.

Love, death, adolescent angst. It all added up to a song that became almost mythical the minute it was released in October 1959: “Teen Angel.”Mark Dinning, a pop singer of modest renown, sang it. Many American radio stations and the British Broadcasting Corporation refused to play it, saying it was too gruesome. Teenagers nonetheless soon learned enough about it to make it a No. 1 song for two weeks in February 1960.

Jean Dinning, Mark’s sister, wrote “Teen Angel.” She got the title from reading a magazine article about juvenile delinquency that said good kids deserved a flattering name, like “teen angel.” She wrote half of the song, then jolted awake one night, as if someone had shaken her and handed her the rest of the words.

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.

Ms. Dinning died on Feb. 22 in Garden Grove, Calif., her daughter, Cynthia Wygal, told The Orange County Register. She was 86.
Early, tragic death was in the air in 1959. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash earlier that year, and memories of James Dean’s death in a head-on collision four years earlier were still fresh.
Teenagers in 1960 scooped up Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her,” the tragic tale of a teenage boy who enters a racing car championship to win prize money to buy Laura a wedding ring. After the inevitable crash, his last words are the title of the song.
“Teenage coffin songs” became a genre, at least to sarcastic disc jockeys.
But if “Teen Angel” captured a moment in time, it also had legs as a piece of popular culture. It was sung at Woodstock by Shah-Na-Na and was heard in the 1973 movie “American Graffiti.”
When a panel chosen by the Recording Industry of America Association, the National Endowment for the Arts and Scholastic Inc. rated the songs of the 20th century in 2001, “Teen Angel” took 219th place.
The British newspaper The Observer included “Teen Angel” in a list of the top 50 teenage anthems since 1940.
Eugenia Dinning, who later changed her name to Jean, was born on March 29, 1924, in Grant County, Okla., where her father lost the farm in the Depression and became a Maytag salesman who moved often. His nine pitch-perfect children improved a succession of church choirs.
Jean and her sisters Lou and Ginger won several amateur contests when Jean was 10. As the Dinning Sisters, they had a 15-minute radio show in Enid, Kan., when they were still young and went on to national fame on NBC radio, in movies and on records.
Their million-seller was “Buttons and Bows” from the 1948 movie, “The Paleface.” Other hits included “A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow” and “We Fell in Love on the Greyhound Bus.”
“The Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits” said Jean first played “Teen Angel” to her brother Mark (whose birth name was Max) at a family dinner. Before the dishes were cleared away, Mark recorded it on a tape recorder. Jean later had several 45s made and mailed him one. When he took it to a record store to play it, an appreciative crowd gathered around the listening booth.
Mark didn’t love it at first, but MGM soon persuaded him to record it. It sold more than 2.5 million copies.
The song was copyrighted twice, both times with Ms. Dinning’s name and the name of her former husband, Red Surrey. The two had agreed to share credit for any song either one wrote during their marriage, and after they divorced she received full credit for “Teen Angel” as part of the settlement.
Her ex-husband did not figure in her accounts of how the song was composed, though he may have helped shape the music.
Ms. Dinning is survived by her sisters Ginger and Dolores (who succeeded Lou in the group); five children, Shay Edwards, Cynthia Wygal, Howard Mack, and Ronald and David Surrey; eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Mark Dinning died in 1986.
To some, “Teen Angel” raises more questions than it answers. Why was the ring loose in the car? Had he just given it to her? Had it fallen off her finger?
The uncertainty is clearly part of the song’s appeal, and the narrator desperately wants these answers himself. “Teen angel, teen angel,” the song ends, “answer me, please.”

Click the picture below to watch the Utube version of the song