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Ray Peterson, balladeer of teenage tragedy

LOS ANGELES -- Ray Peterson, the Texas pop-country singer whose recording of "Tell Laura I Love Her" was one of the most successful entries in a short-lived pop music subgenre known as teenage tragedy, has died of cancer.

Most sources list his age as 65, but a writer in San Antonio, where Mr. Peterson grew up, said the singer had shaved four years off his age for publicity purposes and would have turned 70 this year.

Mr. Peterson, who spent the most successful part of his recording career in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s and early '60s, died Tuesday at his home in Smyrna, Tenn., outside Nashville.

"Tell Laura I Love Her," which was written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh, was the tear-stained story of a teenage boy who dies in a fiery crash while racing for a $1,000 prize so he can buy his girlfriend a wedding ring.

"You know, that song still sells 2 to 3 million copies a year," Mr. Peterson told an interviewer in 2000. "I make a few thousand dollars a year off of that song, and I only get one-quarter cent" per copy.

Mr. Peterson's recording, with the signature catch in his voice, was one of the most successful entries on the list of sad songs that seemed to grow out of James Dean's premature death in a car crash in 1955. Tragic tales that hit the pop airwaves included Jody Reynolds' 1958 hit "Endless Sleep," Mark Dinning's 1959 No. 1 hit "Teen Angel," Johnny Preston's 1960 single "Running Bear," Dickie Lee's 1962 song "Patches," and the Shangri-La's "Leader of the Pack" and J. Frank Wilson's "Last Kiss," both from 1964.

Such songs gave voice to the high drama of star-crossed lovers who were -- by parents, society, or other circumstances -- prevented from being together. The trend largely faded after Bobbie Gentry's 1967 hit, "Ode to Billie Joe."

"Tell Laura" was Mr. Peterson's biggest hit, reaching No. 7 nationally, but pop-music aficionados usually cite his 1961 follow-up single "Corrina, Corrina," as his best. It was his version of an old folk song, an aching lament for a faraway lover, that had been recorded by bandleader Red Nichols in 1931 and became an R&B hit for Joe Turner in 1956.

Mr. Peterson made his first chart appearance in 1959 with "The Wonder of You," a song that peaked at No. 25 but became a hit again for him when it reentered the charts in 1964, reaching No. 70 its second time around.

Elvis Presley got a Top 10 hit with the same song six years later. "He asked me if I would mind if he recorded 'The Wonder of You.' I said, 'You don't have to ask permission; you're Elvis Presley.' He said, 'Yes, I do. You're Ray Peterson.' "

Mr. Peterson was born in Denton, Texas, and grew up in San Antonio, where he was on his way to becoming an athlete -- he was especially fond of football and track -- when a wave of polio swept through the area.

"Six of us got polio in October of that year," he said in 2000. "I watched some of my friends die from it."

He was hospitalized for a long period, during which he got a taste for performing while singing for other patients.

He moved from Texas to Los Angeles in 1956 and began playing clubs, landing a record contract in 1958 with RCA.

With the money he earned from the success of "Tell Laura," he started his own label, Dunes, on which he released "Corrina, Corrina," one of several tracks he made with "Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector.

Like so many American rockers whose careers nose-dived with the 1964 arrival of the Beatles and the British Invasion, Mr. Peterson tried his hand at country music but without commercial success.

He continued touring, often with Roy Orbison. He opened for the Beach Boys on their 1964 "Summer Safari" tour and played shows in Las Vegas. He later became an ordained minister.

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