I've seen the 1958 hit "Endless Sleep" credited from time to time as the first of the "teenage death" songs that were popular in the early rock and roll era. The flaw in this assessment, of course, is that no one dies in the song! Tragedy averted, the morbid trend really began in earnest with Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel" in 1960, followed by Ray Peterson's "Tell Laura I Love Her," "Last Kiss" by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers and countless others in between. A more valid, yet borderline, teen death contender from '58 might be "The Ballad of Thunder Road" by Robert Mitchum (who was 41 years old at the time), which points out the potentially fatal consequences of running moonshine on rural backroads.
Jody Reynolds, the writer and singer of "Endless Sleep," considered the death angle when he wrote the song, but decided it was a bit drastic. Such a depressing subject, while broached countless times in blues, jazz and even the occasional pop song, had never been released for consumption by a teenage audience, at least not successfully (though The Cheers had hinted at it with the final verse of "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" in 1955). Still, Jody's song began with the suggestion his (one-legged?) girlfriend had drowned: 'The night was black, rain fallin' down, looked for my baby, she's nowhere around...traced her footstep down to the shore...'fraid she's gone forever more...' (you heard it right, no "s" at the end of "footstep"!) Early resistance to the record stemmed from an otherworldly insinuation she had committed suicide: 'I heard her voice cryin' in the deep...come join me baby in my endless sleep.' But misgivings were short-lived. This record had the goods to be a hit.
Jody was born Ralph Joseph Reynolds in Denver, Colorado in 1932. Seeking work as a musician, he did some moving around, finding himself in Phoenix, Arizona in the mid-'50s. He met Al Casey, an accomplished local guitarist who played on the session for Sanford Clark's top ten hit "The Fool" in 1956. After hearing Elvis Presley's haunting, double-tracked voice on "Heartbreak Hotel," the first of the Big E's blockbuster hits, he set a goal to write a similar type of song for himself. In 1958, at about the time Casey was backing Duane Eddy on the first of the "twangy" guitarist's five-year string of hits, he joined Jody in the studio to handle lead guitar duties on "Endless Sleep," which also featured guitarist Howard Roberts and bassist Noel Stutte. This backing band, The Storms, worked and toured with Reynolds for the next few years.
The record met with resistance from several record labels, but a new company based in Los Angeles, Demon Records, took a chance and it paid off. The label's seventh release, it was pressed with a puzzling songwriter credit to Reynolds and Dolores Nance (a person Jody claimed never existed). The song hit the top ten nationally in June '58 (Demon's eighth single to hit the market was "Western Movies" by The Olympics, which went top ten in September and was the only other major hit for the short-lived label). Across the pond, Marty Wilde quickly put out a near-identical cover version, landing him in the U.K. top ten in July, effectively blocking Jody's chances in Britain.
Follow-up single "The Fire of Love" retained the downbeat atmosphere of the debut hit, this time hinting that 'I won't see my love no more' but restoring true love by the final verse; it was a minor hit at the end of the summer. Reynolds never appeared on the charts again, but the people at Demon didn't give up on him, despite a sameness of sound on the later efforts. Five more singles were released before the label closed its doors in 1960. During this time, the Storms made an instrumental single, "Thunder," for Sundown Records (adding prolific session saxophonist Plas Johnson, a major contributor to many of Eddy's records). After leaving Demon, Reynolds forged ahead with releases on the Emmy, Brent and Titan labels, in addition to "Stormy," a one-shot 45 on Smash with Eddy's producer Lee Hazlewood. In 1963, Bobbie Gentry made her recording debut on a duet with Jody, "Stranger in the Mirror," a single on Titan that went largely unnoticed (her breakthrough came four years later with the enigmatic number one hit "Ode to Billie Joe"). In 1964, "Endless Sleep" was revived by 15-year-old newcomer Hank Williams, Jr. (with added footstomps, disregarding the song's beach setting), becoming one of the early records by the young "Bocephus" to make the charts.
Reynolds drifted away from the music business. Eventually settling in the Palm Springs area, he worked in real estate and ran a music store. Rockabilly folklore tells of his most famous customer and friend possessing the initials E.P., who purchased a few of his guitars and even played one during the "jam session-in-the-round" segment of a certain milestone December 1968 NBC-TV special. As for Jody Reynolds, he remained in the California desert until his passing in 2008. Meanwhile, "Endless Sleep" is still considered a tragedy or "death" song by too many people who apparently haven't listened to it all the way through: 'Reached for my darling, held her to me, stole her away from the angry sea...my heart cried out she's mine to keep, I saved my baby from an endless sleep.' The proof is right there in the lyrics.