Friday Five: James Dean

Ken Morton, Jr. | February 10th, 2012

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.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CrytHVUU4M

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.”

  1. Rick
    February 11, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    “James Dean” is one of my all time favorite songs by The Eagles.

    I’m surprised that no one has written a song about Blackwell’s Corner, the service station at the intersection of Highway’s 33 and 46 that was James Dean’s last stop before the accident. The business is still going strong and has interesting James Dean pictures, paintings, and other memoribilia on the walls of the convenience store area.

    James Dean had stopped there primarily to check out another race car headed toward the track at Salinas that had stopped for gas. If James had just left a few seconds earlier or later he might have missed crashing into the Ford sedan of Donald Turnipseed. Them’s the breaks.

    An interesting aside: For many decades the Porsche auto company downplayed the 550 Spyder for advertising purposes in the US because of its connection to Dean’s death. This paranoia has now passed and Porsche recently announced they may be launching a new 550 Spyder model as their entry level car model. Fiberglass bodied versions of the car that mount on a Volkswagen Beetle chassis have been popular since the 1980’s and remain so today.

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