‘Who Killed the Kennedys?’ JFK’s influence on musicians

The Music The Month JFK Died

Next month will mark the 54th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. We all know the visuals of that day: He was sitting in the backseat of a swanky car, Jackie O. by his side in her pink outfit and matching hat. Shots were fired — from Lee Harvey Oswald alone or joined by others, pick your conspiracy–as they rolled past Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.

Fun fact about that week: High-energy Top 40 radio stations flipped to classical or soft instrumental music following Kennedy’s death. It was their way of mourning with the nation.

The  number one song on the dark day in Dallas was Dale & Grace’s “I’m Leaving it All Up to You.”  Dale Houston was with a group of other singers who reportedly waved to President Kennedy on Main Street just a few moments before the shooting. Houston did not hear the news of the shooting until hours later. His song with Grace Broussard remained number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 the following week before “Dominique,” sung in French, by the Singing Nun, took the top spot for the rest of 1963.

Dale and Grace – I’m Leaving It All up to You


The Singing Nun – Dominique

Much like Kennedy’s presidency, his violent death and the grief of his family captivated the nation. The image of the president’s young son, John F. Kennedy Jr., walking out to the street and saluting as his father’s body was rolled down the streets of Washington, D.C., is as iconic as the photo of the president on the phone in the Oval Office as his  children played nearby.


Music as a second draft of history, Kennedy-style

As they are inclined to do, musicians took Kennedy’s death as inspiration. Some of the songs are respectful and mournful, like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence”:

Others sound upbeat but are reflective, like “Seconds” from The Human League.


Then there’s Elvis Costello’s “Less than Zero,” the Dallas version, in which a woman tries to deflect the heaviness of the assassination by diverting her attention to the future.


Some songs are flat-out devotional, like Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John.”

Even Canadian bands got into the act from time to time.


Of course, there are those whose Kennedy references aren’t reverential at all.

The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” for starters.


Pearl Jam’s “Brain of J,” from Yield:

Apparently Marilyn Mason is full-on obsessed with Kennedy’s assassination and the conspiracies that surround it, writing no fewer than 10 songs with hints and nods and references to JFK.

And then…. well, there’s the Dead Kennedys. The band, formed in San Francisco in 1978, said their name was not meant to slight or mock the president but instead to “bring attention to the end of the American Dream.”

There’s a really comprehensive list over here, perfect listening to accompany an in-depth review of the 28,000 or so pages of JFK assassination documents released by the US government on Oct. 26.


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