Obituary: Ray Peterson

Singer famed for his 1960s hit, Tell Laura I Love Her

Death discs were an important part of pop music in the 1950s and early 1960s. One of the most memorable was Tell Laura I Love Her, in which a teenage driver had a fatal accident in the stock car race he had entered to win cash to buy a wedding ring. The tale was all the more effective for being sung in an angelic high tenor by Ray Peterson, who has died of cancer aged 65.

Peterson was born in Denton, Texas, and as a child contracted poliomyelitis in an epidemic that killed several classmates. In hospital, he sang to entertain fellow patients, and after being discharged with braces on both legs, he was set on a career in music. Following his show business success, his name featured on lists of Americans who triumphed over the most feared of post war childhood diseases.

In 1957, he moved to Los Angeles, where talent agent Stan Shulman found him a recording contract with RCA Records. Peterson's musical hero was black vocalist Jesse Belvin, and his first recording was a version of Fever, a recent hit for rhythm and blues singer Little Willie John. Peterson's own first minor hit was The Wonder Of You, composed by Baker Knight and later recorded by Elvis Presley. Then came Tell Laura, written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh; it reached the Top 10 in 1960 and inspired an "answer" song, Tell Tommy I Miss Him, recorded by Marilyn Michaels.

Laura's macabre theme had led to it being banned by a few US radio stations, but in Britain it inspired moral panic after an extract was broadcast on BBC television news. So great was the furore that Decca Records cancelled plans to release Peterson's disc, declaring it to be "too tasteless and vulgar for the English sensibility", and scrapping the 25,000 copies it had already pressed.

Meanwhile, EMI cut a new version of the song with a previously unknown local singer, Ricky Valance. It became a No 1 hit even though the BBC Light Programme declined to play it, citing a recent spate of fatal motor racing accidents.

In 1961, Peterson and Shulman created their own record company, Dunes. They hired the then almost unknown Phil Spector as a producer. He gave a Latin tinge to Peterson's second and final Top 10 hit, the traditional ballad Corrina, Corrina, and produced Dunes' only other big success, Pretty Little Angel Eyes, by Curtis Lee, a singer discovered by Peterson in Arizona. Peterson's own subsequent recordings included Give Us Your Blessings, by Jeff Barry with Ellie Greenwich, in which both the girl and the boy died in a crash en route to their wedding.

Dunes folded, and Peterson's plaintive ballads were less attractive to youth audiences in the era of the Beatles and other groups. In the 1970s, he moved over to country music, recording the album Peterson Country.

He later became a Baptist minister, but continued to perform on the growing oldies circuit, alongside Connie Francis and other 1960s stars.

He is survived by his wife, Claudia, and seven children.

· Ray Peterson, singer, born April 23 1939; died January 25 2005

Contributor

Dave Laing

The GuardianTramp

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