J. Frank Wilson had only one hit, but it was a huge one. With his band the Cavaliers, he brought Wayne Cochran's teen-death melodrama "Last Kiss" to the upper reaches of the American pop charts in the fall of 1964. The song was the last in a long line of teen tragedies that were popular in the U.S. during the early '60s; as a matter of fact, it's a little surprising that a song this excessively melodramatic was a hit at the height of the British Invasion. Wilson might have found it surprising himself -- after all, he sort of lucked into the position of pop star in the first place.
Born in Lufkin, TX, in 1941, Wilson began his professional recording career almost by accident. Upon his discharge from the Air Force, Wilson came in contact with the Cavaliers, a rock & roll band led by guitarist Sid Holmes and featuring bassist Lewis Elliott, saxophonist Rob Zeller, and drummer Ray Smith. The Cavaliers had been around since 1955, forming in San Angelo, TX, then moving to Memphis in the early '60s, then returning to San Angelo in 1962. They continued to gig as an instrumental group around their hometown for a while, before being encouraged to add a singer. They heard about Wilson through the grapevine, and after an audition, they had him join.
Wilson helped increase the Cavaliers' audience dramatically. Soon, they were popular attractions at a number of local Texas clubs. At one of these gigs, they earned the attention of Sonley Roush. According to Wayne Janick's interview with Holmes in The Billboard Book of One Hit Wonders, Roush was a "strange man" that lived with his mother. Roush also happened to be obsessed with a song called "Last Kiss," written and recorded by a Georgia blue-eyed soul singer called Wayne Cochran. "Last Kiss" was the tragic tale of a girl who was killed on her first date with her sweetheart. Cochran based the song on a true-life tale of three teenage couples who were killed when their car struck a flatbed logging truck. He recorded the song twice, on the local Gala label and then the national King, but it went nowhere. However, Roush happened to hear it and fell in love with it.
Roush brought "Last Kiss" to the Cavaliers, asked them to learn it and play it. They did whenever he was in the audience. Roush then made a deal with a friend who owned a local studio for the band to record the song. During the recording sessions, Roush acted as producer, which irritated both Holmes and Zeller. Still, they managed to cut "Last Kiss," and then Roush peddled the song to a couple of local labels. Le Cam released it first, then Tamara. It wasn't long before it was picked up by Josie Records for national distribution.
Josie evidently knew just how to promote the record, since it became a huge, unexpected hit. During the fall of 1964, the charts were dominated by the British Invasion, particularly the Beatles, so it was quite a feat for Wilson & the Cavaliers to scale such great heights. Inevitably, such sudden fame caused problems. In particular, Wilson now believed that he was superstar. In Janick's interview, Sid Holmes says that Wilson indulged in "sex, booze, (he was) up all night." Wilson's excesses were so great that the Cavaliers left him behind after just a handful of gigs. Wilson continued to promote the record with a new group of Cavaliers and with Sonley Roush as his manager.
On route to a concert in Canton, OH, that fall, Roush fell asleep at the wheel, resulting in a head-on collision. Roush died immediately and Wilson was injured; when he performed on American Bandstand after the accident, he was in crutches. The car crash was sadly ironic, but it didn't slow Wilson. He and Jose Records assembled a new band, using the name the Cavaliers even though the Cavaliers were carrying on, now with Lewis Elliott as their leader and James Thomas as vocalist. In the studio, Wilson was supported by session musicians. The first fruits of his new efforts was "Hey Little One," a version of a Dorsey Burnette song. It stiffed -- it only reached 85, spending a mere two weeks on the charts.
As it turned out, "Hey Little One" wasn't a bump in the road. It was the end of Wilson's chart success. Although he continued to tour and record throughout the '60s, Wilson made no national impact. He continued recording into the '70s, but by that point he was essentially working day jobs. According to Holmes' interview with Janick, Wilson couldn't come to grips with his status as a one-hit wonder. He ran through eight marriages as he sank into alcoholism. Eventually, all of his fast living caught up with him -- he died October 4, 1991, a few months shy of his 50th birthday.
During all of Wilson's personal troubles, the Cavaliers soldiered on, albeit in two different incarnations. Elliott and Thomas never ceased performing under the Cavaliers name, while Holmes revived the name for 15 years, between 1972 and 1987.
J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers - Last Kiss (1964)
Original LP Label: US Josie Records 4006
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