Eddie Cochran - Biography

Eddie Cochran was one of rock & roll's single most powerful stars and also one of its earliest casualties. A ferociously talented guitarist and expressive singer whose songs zeroed in on teenaged listeners with stunning accuracy, the charismatic, good-looking Cochran was a momentous force who managed to achieve not only an impressive measure of commercial success, but also exert a tremendous influence within the brief, five-year span of his career. He was, it seemed, almost too good to be true.


Born Edward Raymond Cochran in Albert Lea, Minnesota on October 3, 1938, but was raised in Oklahoma. Then in 1951, Cochran's family re-located to Bell Gardens, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, where the 13-year-old country music fan was exposed to the more vibrant, progressive form of hillbilly that thrived in the area. Bell Gardens was populated by hundreds of other Okie families., and while attending junior high school, Cochran met another teenage music fiend, Connie "Guybo" Smith, who would become an important part of Cochran's creative life after Smith began supplying his monstrously heavy electric bass lines to Cochran's records. But it was still another youthful aspirant, Hank Cochran (no relation), with whom Eddie would begin his professional career. Hank, who went on to become one of Nashville's most successful country music songwriters (with such titles as “ Fall To Pieces,” “Make The World Go Away,” and “Ain‘t it Funny [How Time Slips Away]"), was already chipping away at country, having won the popular Squeakin' Deacon talent show, yet he craved the big break. In short order, it seemed to present itself when he allied himself with Eddie in late 1954.


Originally billed as the Cochran Brothers, they worked up some mid-range proto-rockabilly treats, and also hooked up with songwriter-hustler Jerry Capehart, who served as the duo's promoter and booking agent. While they managed to get several songs on record--the straight country of "Mr. Fiddle," and "Two Blue Singin' Stars" (released as 45 on the Ekko label in 1955), and later, the rhythm heavy "Tired & Sleepy" and "Fools Paradise" (a 1956 Ekko single)--the songs were softcore numbers that generated neither the fire that Eddie later used to set the world ablaze, nor the sensitivity and craft of Hank's subsequent compositions. The pair knocked around Los Angeles, auditioning for local country music television shows and taking whatever bookings Capehart could snag. They traveled up and down the state, landing a considerable stint on Stockton’s California Hayride and eventually hit the road to Texas. There, at Dallas' famed Big D Jamboree in the autumn of 1955, the pair witnessed a life-changing appearance by Elvis Presley, himself just beginning to make noise in the South. Fortified with the high-voltage motivation of Presley's revolutionary rockabilly sound, they returned to California, and as Hank later said, with the new, supercharged approach, "We just got hot as all-git-out."


While Eddie thrived on the explosive style, and audiences responded with equal intensity--shrieking chicks, mob scenes, the whole bit-- it quickly became too much for Hank: "All them people screaming and trying to get at you. I didn't like it at all. I told Eddie, I wanna just stick with the country, stay where I'm from." That was the end of the Cochran Brothers, but Eddie was just getting started. He had high style, quick, hot and discerning, with a sheer musicality that was barely captured on wax, but the hints he managed to leave behind were profound. Teamed again with Guybo Smith, Cochran quickly developed his own distinctive musical brand, a sleek, fast-moving, blues informed, Presley-inspired assault that was lent considerable weight by Cochran's superb guitar playing. Rockabilly was fast becoming a national craze, and while its controversial nature polarized the industry,  there was a great deal of money to be made by  those smart enough to exploit it--if one could only find the proper outlet for exposure. While his first solo single, "Skinny Jim," released in mid-1956 on indie label Crest, was a representative shard of Cochran's high-octane gifts, it didn't receive much notice and failed to chart. But Cochran was fortunate enough to appear in director Frank Tashlin’s brilliant big screen spectacular, The Girl Can’t Help It, alongside the likes of Little Richard, Gene Vincent and the Treniers. That impressive Technicolor intro, belting out "Twenty Flight Rock," put him on the map, and Cochran's career almost immediately went into overdrive (he also appeared in two other films, Untamed Youth and Go, Johnny Go).


Capehart landed him a contract with Liberty Records, and in early 1957, Cochran finally made the Billboard pop charts with a version of  John D. Loudermilk’s lipstick smearing “Sittin‘ in the Balcony,“ which reached number 18. Thanks to The Girl Can’t Help It, he was suddenly an established star in the new big beat firmament, getting booked onto disk jockey Alan Freed’s infamous NYC rock & roll revues (alongside Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson and Bo Diddley), and in October toured Australia on a package headlined by Little Richard and Gene Vincent. It was a mad affair that sold out at every stop, replete with riotous crowds of fans, and the bizarre spectacle of Soviet satellite Sputnik roaring overhead at a Sydney open-air stadium during Little Richard's set. Cochran was actively trading in the elemental basics of rock & roll, and he quickly distinguished himself as one of the form's most ambitious architects.


With his 1958 classic, “Summertime Blues,” Cochran achieved immortality. He spoke to teenaged America directly, when he sang, "I called up my congressman / and he said quote / I'd like to help you son, but you're too young to vote." Cochran was crystallizing teenagers' non-role in society, even as he celebrated their carefree freedom. That small but significant insight established Cochran not only as a first rate entertainer but also an artist with a keen sense of his audience's self-image--hemmed by the square's rule book, always seeking a way out, craving both individual recognition and a sense of worth largely denied them.


“Summertime Blues,” with its chunky, blues-copped riffs, carried such gargantuan appeal that it swiftly made the Top Ten, and Cochran continued to churn out some highly distinctive efforts. The equally arresting, “C’mon Everybody,” his propulsive party cry "Jeanne Jeanne Jeanne," his opulently unconventional instrumental "The 4th Man Theme," and the comparatively more intense content of "Nervous Breakdown" and "Don't Blame Me," was an impressive body of work. Cochran was laying down a catalog which signaled the artistic potential of rock & roll.  He worked with a broad pop-art scope very similar to that of West Texas seer Buddy Holly. The 1968 rebirth of "Summertime Blues," at the LSD saturated hands of Blue Cheer, was one of proto-metal’s most soul-shattering anthems and it signified the impressive reach of Cochran’s singularly innovative pathology.


Cochran was a remarkably self-possessed artist, and in the few short years he was active, had already seen some major shifts in the idiom. In Australia, Little Richard took Sputnik's flaming trajectory as a sign from God and famously quit the business; Elvis was drafted; Cochran's friend Buddy Holly, along with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, were killed in a plane crash. Yet Cochran didn't shrink away from this course of disaster and kept an eye intriguingly on the future. "Rock & roll is going to be here for quite some time," he said during a February 1959 appearance on Los Angeles television show, Town Hall Party, "but I don't know if it's going to be rock & roll as we know it today . . .it's been around a long time but nobody's recognized it, and it's going to be around for a long time--but changing."


Infuriatingly, Cochran had very little of his own future. His one and only album Singin' to My Baby (1958 Liberty) was hardly representative, loaded with ballads and needing more hard-hitting stuff like "Somethin' Else" (his last chart hit in America which reached #58). At his final session for Liberty in early 1960, Cochran, with Holly's surviving Crickets, recorded the shudderingly emotional tribute, "Three Steps to Heaven," then flew off for Britain to co-headline a tour with Gene Vincent. The pair worked together extensively in the UK, but on April 17, during a taxi ride to the airport, Cochran died after the driver lost control and lurched into a ditch. The loss of a rocker with such capacity, drive and originality was a cruel blow, and like the death Buddy Holly, left the world in a miserable spot, wondering for all time what might have been.

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