“Endless Sleep,” which peaked at No. 5 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart in 1958, opened the door for a string of similarly tragic pop hits including Mark Dinning's "Teen Angel," Ray Peterson's "Tell Laura I Love Her," Johnny Preston's "Running Bear," the Everly Brothers' "Ebony Eyes," Dickey Lee's "Patches" and the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack."
Ralph Joseph Reynolds was born in Denver on Dec. 3, 1932, according to an interview with Reynolds posted at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame’s website, although many pop music sources list the year 1938. He was inducted into the hall of fame in 1999.
His family moved to Oklahoma when he was a child, and he grew up listening to country music and Western swing acts such as Bob Wills, Hank Thompson and Eddy Arnold. He started playing guitar in his early teens and formed a band, the Storms, in the early '50s after he moved to Arizona.
When radio stations started playing the raw, energetic music of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and other rising rockabilly acts, Reynolds liked what he heard and started emulating them.
Reynolds told the Phoenix New Times in 2001 that he wrote "Endless Sleep" in 1956, right after listening to Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" five times in a row on a jukebox.
He loved the desolate quality of the story and Presley's vocal, and came up with an even darker tale, about a boy in search of his girlfriend after they had a fight.
The night was black, rain fallin' down
Looked for my baby, she's nowhere around
Traced her footsteps down to the shore
'fraid she's gone forever more
The ballad unfurled with scooping electric guitar chords and Reynolds' voice double-tracked and soaked with echo, all contributing to the foreboding atmosphere. His voice fell somewhere between Presley's sad-sexy drawl and Ricky Nelson's boy-next-door conversational style.
The song as written was rejected by several pop record labels as too depressing. He sent a demo version to Los Angeles-based Demon Records, which liked it. Still, executives persuaded Reynolds to tack on a happy ending in which the guilt-ridden boy spots his girl in the waves, lifts her in his arms and carries her back safely to shore.
Reynolds wasn't happy with the change, but the single went on to sell more than 1 million copies. The follow-up single, "Fire of Love," only made it to No. 66, and Reynolds never charted another hit. "Endless Sleep," though, became a genre classic. It was subsequently recorded by British musician Marty Wilde and became a hit in England, and it has since been covered by numerous artists, including the Judds, John Fogerty, Billy Idol, Leo Kottke and Hank Williams Jr. Country singer Bobbie Gentry was playing in Reynolds' band in the 1960s when she wrote "Ode to Billie Joe," her Southern Gothic spin on the teen tragedy formula.
Reynolds settled in Southern California and continued to write and record his songs, while supporting himself, his wife and children for many years by running a music store in Palm Springs. He sold several guitars to Presley, whom he considered a friend, including one Presley played prominently on his celebrated NBC-TV "comeback special" in 1968.
Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, signed Reynolds to his Boxcar Publishing Co., with an eye toward funneling some of his songs to Presley. But Presley died in 1977 before recording any of the songs Reynolds had written for him. Reynolds included one, "Yesterday and Today," on an album he released in 1978.
He also worked as a real estate agent in La Quinta when he wasn't playing occasional shows, mostly on the rock oldies circuit.
"He did real estate, but he didn't talk too much about that to me," Alan Clark, a fellow musician who had performed with Reynolds since the 1970s, said this week. "He enjoyed songwriting more than anything else, even more than performing."
Reynolds is survived by his wife of 47 years, Judy; daughters Malinda Bustos and Marla Reynolds; a son, Mark Reynolds; sisters Marguerite Honeycutt and Martha Palladine, one grandchild and one great-grandchild.
Services were held Thursday in Cathedral City.
The family has asked that donations be made to the Humane Society of the Desert, Orphans Pet Oasis, P.O. Box 580798, North Palm Springs, CA 92258.
Lewis is a Times staff writer.