It’s his birthday today.
Eddie Cochran’s songs still get play everywhere, all the time, on the radio no less! 1950s hits still in rotation. Elvis’ 1950s hits aren’t still in rotation. The only ones you hear on the radio for the most part are “Suspicious Minds” and maybe – MAYBE – “In the Ghetto”. But Cochran is still everywhere. (I just reviewed a movie in August which had Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” on the soundtrack. Obligatory, perhaps, but that song is a stone-cold classic.)
The deaths of Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly in 1959 was, in retrospect, just the horrible jump-start to the exodus. When Cochran died the following year – just as suddenly only this time in a car crash – it had to have felt like a cruel joke to the kids. The only comparison I can think of for my generation was the one-two punch of Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix, their deaths six months apart. Cochran was only 21 years old when he died. Hard to believe. Eerily, after Buddy Holly’s plane went down, Cochran recorded a song about the Big Three (all of whom he knew personally) called “Three Stars” (three new stars in the sky. Sob.) Cochran’s performance is earnest and sorrowful, prayerful, solemn. He had just months left to live.
Listen to his performance. He means it.
People don’t talk about Eddie Cochran nearly enough.
People don’t talk about this smokin-hot picture of Cochran and Gene Vincent nearly enough.
You know who DOES talk about it? Brian Setzer!
I’m just kidding.
Those who were THERE at the time in the 50s, those who went on to become the superstars of the 60s and 70s, name-check Cochran as an influence all the time: he was the epitome of cool AND hot, he was handsome, he had a striking sense of style (those COATS), and he had that mix of rebellious/bad-boy/sexy that will never grow old and will always be “in”. So people like Mick Jagger (up above) were watching him and learning. Still, though, Cochran’s name doesn’t get the “play” it should. I know, I know, he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well he should be. He’s not forgotten, but it’s almost like he’s become a niche interest to rockabilly fans, as opposed to understanding his importance to the wider culture.
Cochran taught himself blues guitar in high school. He soaked up all different kinds of music at a young age, as so many young people did then during that very specific time in history post-WWII when radio waves reached longer and farther than they ever had before. Shit didn’t stay regional anymore. So he was into country music, rhythm and blues, and he was still a teenager when he started writing songs, as well as collaborating with other songwriters (Jerry Capeheart the main one). In 1956, the same year Elvis went global, Cochran came out with a single, “Skinny Jim” (co-wrote with Capeheart), which didn’t do much chart-wise, although it’s now recognized as a classic track of the era, pure undiluted rockabilly. Cochran was only 18 years old. It’s crazy. Listen to him. He came OUT confident.
That year, rock ‘n roll spread like an unstoppable wave of debris from ground zero. (See, that’s why I say episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return was actually a metaphor for the Arrival of Elvis. I stand by it. Lynch said, on what it was like when Elvis arrived: “It wasn’t there, and then it was there.” IT. Did you hear what he said? IT. Not “he”. IT. The Twin Peaks episode – deemed surreal and incomprehensible by many – while also being revered as experimental cinema – makes total almost literal sense if you watch it as a metaphor for the cultural upheaval – good and bad – created by one atomic-bomb-blast named Elvis Aron Presley.)
Back to business: Hollywood struggled to get a hold of the maniacal youth explosion, the birth of modern pop culture, really. There were some hits or misses – and movies like Rebel Without a Cause or The Wild One – even though they’re not explicitly about music – are more “rock ‘n roll” than any of these films, but never mind, a lot of them are really fun time-capsules and Cochran appeared in a couple, the first being Frank Tashlin’s movie-musical-rock-n-roll extravaganza The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. In the film, he appears on television, performing a song he co-wrote (with a woman, by the way, named Nelda Fairchild – who wrote under a pen name) called “Twenty-Flight Rock”. Whatever Fairchild’s contribution, the performance was all Eddie. Here he is in Girl Can’t Help It. It’s so great, getting to see him in this phase of his life, in this phase of the culture – when “rock ‘n roll” was seen as a passing fad (and some hoped it was), knowing that forty years down the line, he’d be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which hadn’t even been invented yet.
Cut to over half a century later, bitches … Conan O’Brien and Jack White perform “Twenty Flight Rock” on Conan’s show and it is an absolute rager.
You can hear the influence of Elvis in Cochran’s voice, and the two “hit” at the same time (1956), although Elvis of course on a far vaster solar-system-type scale. Their voices sit in similar places, with similar sweet spots: they can be low and smooth, they can rasp, they can scream. Cochran, of course, stands out because he wrote songs too (unlike Elvis), and the man was a hell of a songwriter. A hit-maker. “C’Mon Everybody” is probably his biggest hit – or at least his most-covered – Elvis did it in Viva Las Vegas! Here’s Cochran performing it:
In 1957, Cochran appeared in his second movie, Untamed Youth, this one starring another 50s blonde bombshell, Mamie van Doren.
The title alone tells you what was going on – part of Hollywood’s attempt to deal with the hormonal youth explosion. The early 50s had seen The Wild One, with Brando’s “Johnny” a harbinger of things to come, an already-existing MOOD in the culture, a lot of bored kids with money to burn, a lot of bucking against Eisenhower conformity … James Dean blazed across the sky like a comet, here and then gone, but boy he had an impact. With Elvis, these things went mainstream. Cochran was there just at the right time.
Here he is, working in the cotton fields in Untamed Youth:
Same year as Loving You and Jailhouse Rock. Teenage girls across the land were satisfied. And wanted more.
His voice was smooth and sinewy, liquidy and persuasive, far back in his throat, like he’s about to chuckle. Or growl. A lot of the rockabilly guys could put over a song, could perform the hell out of a song, but they weren’t SINGER singers. I love Sonny Burgess but he wasn’t a singer-singer. You couldn’t picture him crooning his way through a ballad. Raise the roof? YES. Cochran was versatile. He had it all. He was a great guitarist, great songwriter, and he had the voice to express all of it. He was also interested in the collaborative aspect of music-making, producing and recording. His future was so bright!
What cracks me up a little bit listening to Cochran’s songs is that he wrote about things that white suburban kids in America were experiencing, particularly sexually and socially. He really WAS “them”. Elvis, not so much. (Sorry. Don’t mean to “bring him in” so much. It’s not that I’m “bringing him in”, it’s that he’s already there!) Elvis did covers, and a lot of times he was singing about a life not only not shared by his teenage listeners, but not experienced by himself either. Elvis didn’t have “a woman way cross town.” He was home with his mama. He didn’t drink “liquor from an old fruit jar.” He drank milkshakes. Elvis’ VOICE was another thing entirely. His voice was wildness personified.
Cochran though …
In a way, Cochran was more worldly than Elvis. His roots were in Oklahoma, but he lived in California as a kid, and made professional connections through his songwriting chops. I’m not saying he was an ADULT but he had way more responsibilities than Elvis did. AND YET. The songs he wrote! So many are suburban Leave-It-to-Beaver situations, which – naturally – struck a chord in the masses – he was like THEM. He wanted to be left alone, he wanted go “neck”, he wanted to borrow his dad’s car, he wanted to experiment sexually … but he was still in HIGH SCHOOL. (He, Cochran, wasn’t, but the “narrator” of his songs WAS. And these songs hit HARD.)
The titles of some of these tracks:
“Cruisin’ the Drive-In”
“Weekend” – which involves trying to crash various dances and parties, being turned away for not having a tie on, and being busted by the cops at a Lover’s Lane
Cochran’s first song to chart – “Sittin in the Balcony” – wasn’t written by him but it set the tone for this kind of material. The movies feature heavily in Cochran’s music. Not because he loved the movies (although he did). But because the movies were a great place to cop a feel. Let’s just listen to his performance in “Sittin in the Balcony”, because it’s the performance that was such an ear-grabber, not the song, which is kind of meh. His voice DRIPS with sex.
I’m just a-sittin’ in the balcony, on the very last row
I’ll hold your hand and I’ll kiss you too
The feature’s over, but we’re not through
Mmm-mm, just a-sittin’ in the balcony
Only one studio album came out during his lifetime:
… and it’s not at all representative of Cochran’s versatile talents, although it does highlight his beautiful voice. “The suits” get it wrong 9 times out of 10. Granted, Cochran was as good-looking as a movie star. So was Elvis, but Elvis had an almost otherworldly exotic look. Not even real. Cochran’s looks were at least OF THIS EARTH, but still: he was drop-dead gorgeous. I’m sure “the suits” looked at him and saw a dream-boat matinee-idol-crooner. I mean, he sings “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You”, from a 1944 musical. You know. Not that it’s not a good song, but still … So his only album is filled with a lot of teen-dream ballads, and only two written by Cochran alone (a couple were co-written).
I’m just trying to peek into the mood of the time. It was 1957. Elvis had hit like a bomb in 1956, and then went away, disappearing into Hollywood. In Elvis’ wake gyrated a veritable army of slicked-hair white boys wielding guitars – some were awesome, like Cochran, some were obviously copycats. Or, not copycats, it’s just that Elvis’ sway was so massive he sucked everything into his powerful vortex. Country singers switched to rockabilly en masse. (I think all the time about Faron Young’s observation: “Elvis vaporized country music.” It took Nashville 15 years to find its sea-legs again.)
One of the songs Cochran penned is the super-hot “One Kiss”. Methinks he’s talking about more than a kiss.
Lost in the passion
That’s always left behind.
And the moment it happened
I knew I was trapped in
When my heart made up
Cochran had an EDGE. Like this, also from the same album: “I’m mighty mean when I’m mad.”
“Summertime Blues” (1958) was massive. There was a LOT going on in 1958, with a GLUT of hot-rockabilly-boys making music, riding on Elvis’ coat-tails. Cochran was something different. “Summertime Blues” catches a MOOD and it’s a universal mood, coming from that high school perspective – because summer is such a huge deal to teenagers. So it’s always relevant. Then, too, there’s the BEAT, the guitar accompaniment, the way those things go together with HOW he sings it. It’s high-octane, it’s sexual – that little rasp in his voice – he is a force to be reckoned with! And this was him, and him alone. That song was – and continues to be – major. Here he is performing it live, in 1958:
The whole Buddy Holly plane-crash overbooked-tour scenario – a huge issue for artists at the time – weighed on Cochran. He’d rather be in the studio. But tours meant money so he went on a tour through England in 1960. It was a group tour. Gene Vincent, a good friend (see above photo), was on the bill as well – and was in the taxi with Cochran when it crashed. There were quite a few people in that taxi, including Cochran’s fiancee, Sharon Sheeley, an accomplished songwriter in her own right.
Cochran was the only one who died in the crash, and that was because he threw his body over Sheeley as a shield and he was thrown from the vehicle. It’s just awful.
It was like Cochran was still alive, though, because more and more songs kept coming out after his death, more albums. There were live recordings, and studio recordings, and just like Rebel Without a Cause and Giant coming out after James Dean’s death … it contributed to the Cult of Cochran, as well as giving people a renewed sense of all that was lost.
Now. One final thing, because I have written about him before, although it was in the larger context of the history of one particular song, a traditional folk song, transmogrified through all the different versions done by different people. I got interested in this and started doing some digging. In my opinion, the song reaches its apotheosis in Cochran’s version, it was where the song wanted and needed to go all along.
That song is “Milk Cow Blues Boogie”, which had been around a long time when Elvis attempted it, on his first or second day of recording at Sun Records, fresh off the revelation that was “That’s All Right”. They all (Scotty Moore, Bill Black, Elvis, and Sam Phillips) messed around with other material, attempting to catch lightning in a bottle again. In the piece I talk about Sam Phillips’ desire for “crossover”. Elvis’ mucking around with “Milk Cow Blues Boogie”, was that attempt, and you can feel it is an attempt. It’s self-conscious (Nick Tosches really nails what was going on with that recording. Elvis fans won’t like that, but oh well, I call it like I see it.) So … after years of wandering through the folk world, the hillbilly (country) world, and the rhythm and blues world … it arrived in Cochran’s hands. By that point – 1960 – the “crossover” was complete and Cochran’s live version is the culmination. You can’t go further than he went. What he does with the song was what Elvis heard – vaguely – in his head – what they all heard in Sun Records. The song was mainly known as a country song, but – following in the footsteps of Carl Perkins – they were attempting to merge country and rhythm and blues. That was the new gig. But it was all so new, they couldn’t get there yet. Elvis kicked open the crossover door, and Eddie Cochran thrived (briefly) in the aftermath. So if you want to hear me go on at length about all of this, check out that piece. And here is Cochran performing “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” – on that England tour, his final tour – and absolutely MURDERING the song. The girls screaming in the audience don’t just sound like they love him. They almost sound AFRAID. He’s that powerful.
It’s FERAL. It’s almost EMBARRASSING. Also: Listen to his guitar playing. He’s KILLING IT.
Listening to that performance, it seems unreal that he would be dead in just a couple of months.
So here’s to Royalty. Here’s to Eddie Cochran.
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