Cult Heroes No. 20: Eddie Cochran
This year, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Eddie Cochran’s death. And to put this into the proper perspective, when he died – on April 17, 1960 – this man was barely 21 years old. Yet, with a recording and touring career that was already six years old, Cochran was a veteran of the rock ‘n’ roll era, a pioneer and innovator who’s legacy would go on to inspire countless generations. Malcolm Dome looks back at the brief life of a hero, who’s influence on hard rock is far greater than many people realise. Check out all the Cult Heroes.
Eddie Cochran was a one-off, a brilliant musician with the verve and vivacity of youth, yet also the shrewd songwriting brain of someone with far greater experience. What he might have gone on to achieve remains in the realms of speculation. But we’ve enough proof of his vast talents in what he left behind – a string of memorable songs, many of them hits.
Cochran was born in Albert Lea, Minnesota on October 3, 1938. Oddly, he would later claim that he was actually born in Oklahoma, and then moved to Minnesota; his parents were from the former, although quite why he tried to affiliate himself so closely with that city is a mystery.
It was on moving again, to Bell Gardens in California, that the teenage Cochran began to take a serious interest in music. It was here that he met country performer Hank Cochran. Although the pair weren’t related they teamed up and played together under the name of The Cochran Brothers.
“No, we weren’t actually brothers,” Cochrane recalled in a TV interview in 1959. “But it seemed to work for us to go out under that name.”
Working at the time as a sessions musician as well, he got a big break through the movie The Girl Can’t Help It, when he was chosen to appear alongside Jayne Mansfield and Tom Ewell.
“I was in the studio doing a recording session,” said Cochran in 1957 (the year after the film was released). “This guy from the film business (Boris Petroff) came in and asked me if I could sing. I told him that I could, and he said that if I could prove it, then he’d put me in this movie,
“That might I did a demo of Twenty Flight Rock, took it down to the film studio the next day, and got the part.”
Cochran’s rearrangement of this song (originally written by Ned Fairchild) was to become iconic. Here was early proof of his ability to make any tune his own; it was his investment of talent and energy that turned the song into a rock ‘n’ roll classic. And it was to be particularly inspirational to one teenage kid in Liverpool. It’s said that, having seen the film and watched Cochran’s performance, 15-year-old Paul McCartney chose to play this as the first number when he auditioned in 1957 to join a band called The Quarrymen, who also featured one John Lennon! We all know what happened next…
Cochran had his first major hit in ’57 with Sittin’ In The Balcony, which he also performed in second film, ‘Untamed Youth’. This was one of the few occasions when he recorded a song written solely by an outside composer, in this case one John D. Loudermilk. Most of Cochran’s biggest songs were his own, imbued with that rare spirit which made him stand apart from most others. The titles of these have now past into legend: C’Mon Everybody, Something Else and, of course, Summertime Blues, which was perhaps his signature tune.
“Eddie had a studio session booked one day,” says Jerry Capehart, who co-wrote the track. “The night before he came over to my apartment, and I suggested we write a song together. As it was coming up to Summer, I thought it might be an idea to do a blues tune about that time of year. As far as I knew, no-one had ever done that before. Eddie said he had this riff, which he played me, and this became the opening riff you hear.”
Summertime Blues also showcased something else that was crucial about Cochran. For, while it’s subsequently become an anthem about teenage frustration, nonetheless it also had a snigger.
“Eddie had a great sense of humour,” said Capehart. “He would never do anything unless it had some humour in it. So, when you hear the deep voice in the song, this was Eddie paying homage to the ‘Kingfish’.”
This was a character – George ‘Kingfish’ Stevens – from popular early 1950s US comedy series Amos ‘N’ Andy. The song itself made the Top Ten in America, and became Cochran’s most famous hit. It was also to be famously covered several years later by Blue Cheer – in fact, it was this version that many believed ushered in the era of metal!
On February 3 1959, Cochran was allegedly supposed to be on the fateful plane trip that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper (although this is a point of dispute). The fact that he never got on the flight was said to have haunted what remained of his all-too brief life.
“I think he felt that from then on, he was living on borrowed time,” remarked Capehart in 1978. Barely 14 months later, while on tour in the UK, Cochran was killed when a taxi in which he was a passenger ploughed into a lamp post in Chippenhamm Wiltshire. Just three months prior to this, he’d recorded impressive sessions for TV series Boy Meets Girls. This was a British show launched in September 1959, but barely lasted five months (26 episodes in all), before being canned on February 26, 1960. Cochran appeared on both January 16 and February 20, 1960. And these are presented here, to prove the enduring power of the man live. Sadly, none of the footage has survived.
Eddie Cochran is unquestionably one of the true giants of the 1950s. His innovative guitar technique – being able to bend notes up a whole tone – has become almost standard over the past few decades. But perhaps the biggest reason why his work is timeless is that it is ‘work in progress’. He had the ability of leaving sufficient space and room in all his recordings for future development – by both himself and others. It’s this that has attracted so many down the years, allowing them to introduce their own interpretations. While Cochran’s songs are self-sufficient and brilliantly realised, nonetheless they avoid being self contained, therefore avoiding the trap of becoming ‘of their time’.
What Cochran has left here is proof that he was a pioneer of rockabilly and certainly hard rock. Without his sense of purpose, adventure and dedication, then the music we know and love may never have happened. His was certainly a genius that burned up fast, but lit the spark for the 1960s.
“Ever since rock ‘n’ roll started, people have been claiming it was gonna die. Well, we’re five years in, and it’s still going strong. I reckon it’ll be around for a long while yet.” – Eddie Cochran, 1960.
OK, here are some memorable performances:
Tags: Blue Cheer, Buddy Holly, Cult Heroes, Eddie Cochran, Hank Cochran, Jayne Mansfield, Jerry Capehart, John D. Loudermilk, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, The Cochran Brothers, Tom Ewell