If we were granted three wishes, (along with eternal youth and a billion dollars,) we’d like to be 20 years old in the good ‘ol USA back in the mid-fifties.
Why, you ask? Because post-war ’50’s America was the pinnacle of cool cars, music, fashion, and design. A guy who was dealt that exact cosmic hand – no genie required – was early rock pioneer Eddie Cochran. Born in 1938, he was 20 years old right smack in the middle of the coolest era of post-WWII America. On top of that, he was a world-famous singer, musician, songwriter, and fashionista.
Cochran was an innovator in multitrack recording, distortion effects, and other rock guitar techniques and was a multi-instrumentalist as well. His rebellious attitude, charisma and the driving pulse of his music transcended his era.
Elvis Presley (though not known best as a songwriter), will always be “The King” of rock and roll, but he had the luxury of a life twice as long and a career many times longer.
Eddie’s body of work stands up to any member of the 50’s golden age of rock originators, including Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly.
Not only was he one the of the granddaddies of rock and roll, but was also the heppest of cool cats, with a look and style that echoes today at every hot rod show across the globe.
Tragically, he died in London, England at the tender age of 21 on April 17th, 1960. He left behind an enduring legacy of music that will be linked with car culture forever. With that, let’s take a look back – and have a listen – to the music from one of rock’s most talented and short-lived icons.
Musical from early childhood, Ray Edward Cochran moved with his family, from his birthplace in Albert Lea, Minnesota to Oklahoma City, before heading for Bell Gardens, California at thirteen years old. Eddie left school to play country music at fourteen, first with Hank Cochran (no relation) as the Cochran Brothers, then solo at sixteen. As Elvis Presley’s star rose, Cochran reportedly saw his future in rock and roll.
By 17, to little fanfare, he wrote and cut his first rockabilly single, the now-classic “Skinny Jim”, with co-writer/manager Jerry Capeheart, a constant figure in his mercurial career.
At the tender age of 18, his good looks and presence landed him a role in “The Girl Can’t Help It,” where his performance of “Twenty Flight Rock” (Cochran/Capeheart) wowed a few filmgoers but saw no chart action. Eddie followed it through with a top-20 hit “Sitting In The Balcony” and another movie, singing and writing in “Untamed Youth” with blonde heartthrob Mamie Van Doren.
Though Cochran released a couple less successful 45’s before his 19th birthday, a flip side “Am I Blue” stands out. A remarkable rockabilly version of a classic song, it demonstrated his ability to make anything sound cool. Right after his 19th birthday in late ‘57, “Twenty Flight Rock” bombed as a reissue, though later it was recorded by the Beatles and Rolling Stones among many.
“Twenty Flight Rock” was also released by Commander Cody (’71), Montrose (’75), Robert Gordon with Link Wray (’78) and again Setzer, both with Stray Cats (’93) and Jeff Beck (2011). Billy Idol featured it on his “Turned On Tuned in and Unplugged” tour in 2019.
Though he sold records and was famous, his recording career seemed stuck. His next record “Jeannie, Jeannie, Jeannie,” barely charted, although it would help break the Stray Cats 25 years later.
Then everything changed.
Cochran hit it huge with the rebellious rocker “Summertime Blues,” right before his 20th birthday in 1958.
This was to become one of Eddie’s biggest haymakers, covered by hundreds of acts, including many huge stars such as Blue Cheer and the legendary Who. Brian Setzer’s version is especially rocking.
Just one song of that magnitude would have been a lot for a life of just 21 years, but that was only the beginning of Cochran’s output of powerful and timelessly dangerous rock standards. He followed ‘Summertime Blues” with “C’mon Everybody.” a classic rock rumbler that was impossible to ignore.
The next hit “Something Else” wasn’t his last, but final song to make the US singles charts.. A “car song” written by Sharon Sheeley and Eddie’s brother Bob. It only made #35 in the US but established Eddie first in the UK Top-10, where it peaked on the charts at #6.
Songwriter Sharon Sheeley, coming off writing “Poor Little Fool” for Ricky Nelson, holds the record today as the youngest woman (18 years old) to have written a number one hit record. She and Cochran became romantically involved and eventually were “unofficially engaged.”
Cochran achieved more UK chart success after “Somethin Else,” but there was trouble brewing.
Eddie had arrived in England on January 10th, 1960, to join a rock and roll UK tour with Gene Vincent who had already been on the road there since Christmas. It was promoted by top pop impresario Larry Parnes and was supported by UK rockin’ rollers (Billy Fury and Joe Brown to name two,) that he had under contract.
Sheeley flew to England to join Cochran and then things took a turn for the worse. Gene Vincent had a bum leg and didn’t want to endure a six-hour train to the next gig, so they hired a driver, who picked them up in a Ford Consul sedan of the era. When underway, the driver lost control of the car and hit a concrete lamp post.
All occupants were thrown from the car. Cochran suffered serious head trauma, Sheeley broke her pelvis and Vincent broke his ribs and collarbone. Eddie died the next day, Easter Sunday, April 17th, 1960. The cause of the accident was eventually ruled excessive speed.
This clip from a BBC documentary, recounts in harrowing detail, the horror of the crash via an interview with Sharon Sheeley.
Gone too soon, who knows what heights Eddie Cochran would have scaled? We’ll never know, but he is immortalized forever in his youth and beauty by his records, photos and clips, playing rockin’ music at the top his game.
As it often happens, Eddie Cochran’s only number one hit, “Three Steps To Heaven,” was achieved posthumously in 1961.
RIP Eddie Cochran and thanks for the music and a heaping helping of cool.