Friday Five: James Dean
Late one September afternoon in 1955, a silver Porsche 550 was driving along the gentle rolling hills outside the small farming community of Cholame in San Luis Obispo County, California. Inside that little car was one of the leading film stars of his time, James Dean, with his racing friend and mechanic Rolf Wütherich. As the road split to Highway 41, another vehicle crossed into their lane and Dean reportedly muttered his final words, “That guy’s gotta stop… he’ll see us.” The driver of the other car, a Cal Poly student, didn’t until it was too late. At 5:59pm, Dean was declared dead at the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital.
To this day, the handsome actor is a sex symbol and an icon despite his life being cut short early. Amazingly, his impact on the fabric of Americana pop culture happened with only three leading movie roles. His life and name live on in song as literally dozens of songs have been written about him or included his name as a lyric. Here are five of them.
5. Chris Isaak – “American Boy”
Issak’s protagonist is trying to win the affection of his girl and pleads, “I’m no James Dean, baby, but you know I care.”
4. Eagles – “James Dean”
Penned by an all-star songwriting crew of Don Henley, Jackson Browne, JD Souther and Glenn Frey for The Eagles’ 1974 On The Border album, this track probably sums up Dean’s passing better than any other. “Little James Dean, up on the screen, wondering who he might be/Along came a Spyder and picked up a rider and took him down the road to eternity.”
3. Shenandoah – “I Want to Be Loved Like That”
This single topped out at #3 in 1993. Writers Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin, and Bill LaBounty open the song with two of the actors in Rebel Without a Cause: “Natalie Wood gave her heart to James Dean/The high school rebel and the teenage queen/Standin’ together in an angry world/One boy fightin’ for one girl.”
2. Bonnie Tyler – “James Dean”
Tyler is probably known best for her pop power ballad “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” but here she pulls off a rootsy tune about longing for a guy that has James Dean-like eyes.
1. Robbins & Wheeler – “Ghost of James Dean”
The chorus says it all, “In his leather and his jeans he was right in front of me looking wearied from the road and driving down the highway for all eternity/Can’t forget the night I’d seen/the night I’d seen the ghost of James Dean.”
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