It's not just that Pearl Jam's cover of J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers'
1964 teen-death ballad "Last Kiss" (RealAudio
excerpt) has become the biggest hit of the Seattle band's nine-year career.
The song also has catapulted the media-shy group back into the spotlight, and it's made fans of some unlikely listeners among them Wilson's mother, 74-year-old Marjorie Mayer.
"Those young men are all right," Mayer said of Pearl Jam on Thursday from her home in Lufkin, Texas.
Wilson, who died in 1991 at age 58, and his band, the Cavaliers, reached #2 on the pop singles chart in 1964 with their rendition of "Last Kiss." The song originally had been a regional hit for its author, R&B singer Wayne Cochran. Pearl Jam, whose version stays true to the original and includes singer Eddie Vedder's trademark impassioned vocals, are donating all proceeds from the song to Doctors Without Borders, OXFAM (formerly known as Oxford Famine Relief) and Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, all of which will aid Kosovar refugees.
"Frank would have been very happy, not about the attention, but because Pearl Jam are taking what they get from 'Last Kiss' and giving it to those poor people," Mayer said.
About 35 years after it first became a radio hit, the composition, a story song that describes a fatal car crash, is back with a vengeance.
Pearl Jam's slightly rocked-up recording of the song had been gaining
momentum on rock radio since its release as a fan clubonly Christmas single last year. Since the band officially released "Last Kiss" as a radio single May 3, it has been gaining tremendous ground on pop stations nationwide, according to radio professionals. The song rose to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was at #3 last week, largely based on sales of the single, released to stores June 8.
Already, radio professionals say "Last Kiss," which also is available on the Kosovo benefit album No Boundaries, is taking Pearl Jam into pop territory they've never approached before, even with such radio-friendly songs as "Betterman."
"Last Kiss" currently stands at #34 on the radio trade publication Radio & Records' contemporary hit radio charts. But that's just the beginning, according to Tony Novia, the publication's CHR editor.
Novia said an R&R survey of 400 pop-radio listeners across the country found "Last Kiss" to be the eighth-most-popular song in the country this week, faring well against songs by such pop superstars as the Backstreet Boys, Shania Twain and Ricky Martin.
"Last Kiss" will be a major top-40 pop hit, Novia predicted, but its success won't end there. The song almost certainly will become a multiformat hit as well.
"['Last Kiss' is] huge for us," said Jim Kelly, music director of Q102, a Cincinnati rock station, adding that the song has stirred up many more listener requests than any other Pearl Jam track. After the station first played the song in late May, Kelly said, "People were calling all day asking for it, and not just kids or adults, but all across the board."
A hit of that magnitude could bring Pearl Jam squarely back into the pop mainstream, which the group, particularly Vedder, has deliberately shied away from since its debut album, Ten, made it one of the biggest bands in the world.
"It gets their name out there again it's being broadcast to millions and millions of people. All of that exposure creates sort of a domino effect," Kelly said.
Despite his success with "Last Kiss," Wilson never became a major star. His career was derailed in late 1964, shortly after the song hit its peak, when he was injured in a car accident that killed the band's manager, producer Sonley Roush.
Wilson had a hard life after that, his mother said. But, she added, the singer would have been deeply pleased with Pearl Jam's version of "Last Kiss."
"Frank had a good heart; if he had a dollar, he'd give it to you, and he would have loved what they're doing it's a wonderful thing," she said.
(Senior Writer Gil Kaufman contributed to this story.)