WILSON, JOHN FRANK
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WILSON, JOHN FRANK (1941–1991). John Frank Wilson, singer, known as J. Frank Wilson, was born in Lufkin, Texas, on December 11, 1941. He was the son of a railroad engineer. Wilson became a one-hit wonder in the early 1960s when he was the lead singer of the hit song "Last Kiss." He and the Cavaliers, his own band, recorded Wayne Cochran's teenage-death melodrama, which rose to the top of the American pop charts in 1964. The lugubrious song was the last exemplar of a genre that flourished in the early 1960s. "Last Kiss" remained on the charts for twelve weeks.
Wilson had listened carefully to Buddy Hollyqv and Elvis Presley. After graduating from Lufkin High School in 1960, he joined the United States Air Force and was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo. He joined the Cavaliers (guitarist Sid Holmes, bassist Lewis Elliott, saxophonist Bob Zeller, and drummer Ray Smith), a group that had formed in San Angelo in 1955; moved to Memphis in the early 1960s; and returned to San Angelo in 1962. Wilson enhanced the group's appeal and enlarged its audience. The Cavaliers and J. Frank Wilson became a popular attraction at area clubs.
In 1962, at the Blue Note in Big Spring, record producer Sonley Roush heard Wilson and the Cavaliers perform. At Ron Newdoll's Accurate Sound Recording Company on Tyler Avenue in San Angelo, the group recorded Cochran's song. Newdoll and his production company, Askell Productions, produced the recording and acquired ownership of the masters, with royalties, in exchange for the group's right to use the studio. Major Bill Smith, a recording executive in Fort Worth who had released Bruce Channel's hit "Hey! Baby" and Paul & Paula's "Hey Paula," signed Wilson and the Cavaliers to record the song on the Josie label. The record was released in June 1964, entered the charts on October 10, and reached Number 2 on the Billboard Top 40 charts on November 7. The album sold more than 100,000 copies the first few months. Wilson and the Cavaliers earned a gold record for "Last Kiss."
On October 22 Roush was killed in a car wreck in which Wilson was injured. The press whooped up the connection between the accident and the lyrics of "Last Kiss," which is about a teen-aged girl who dies in the arms of her boyfriend after a car accident. Wilson was touring again within a week of the crash. On American Bandstand—and on crutches—he lip-synced "Last Kiss" and introduced a new single, "Six Boys," produced by Smith with studio musicians. Wilson and Josie Records put together a new group under the name Cavaliers, although the original Cavaliers were continuing to perform with Lewis Elliott as leader and James Thomas as vocalist. Wilson recorded with session musicians. He continued as a single act, traveling with Jerry Lee, the Righteous Brothers, the Animals, and other well-known performers until he bottomed out from alcoholism.
He made records and performed into the 1970s, but without much income or effect. On the tenth anniversary of the "Last Kiss" success, he was working in Lufkin as a nursing-home orderly for $250 a week. The depressed one-hit singer attempted marriage eight times and sank into alcohol addiction. Suffering from seizures and diabetes, he died in a nursing home in Lufkin on October 4, 1991, not long before his fiftieth birthday. In 1999 "Last Kiss" once again became a hit when the rock group Pearl Jam released its version, and in 2000, VH1 fans voted "Last Kiss" Number 3 in the all-time Top 10 cover songs. The song received a BMI 2-Million air-play award. J. Frank Wilson is honored in the West Texas Music Hall of Fame.
Austin American–Statesman, June 7, 1999. AVGuide.com (http://www.avguide.com/film_music/music/music_c8.htm), accessed February 10, 2003. The Incredible Saga of J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers (http://www.cicadelic.com/jfrank.htm), accessed March 5, 2010. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.