Following Buddy Holly’s death, record labels soon cottoned on to the effectiveness of a posthumous single, with It Doesn’t Matter Anymore hitting the top soon after the infamous plane crash that instantly killed him, JP Richardson (The Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens in 1959. A year later, Holly’s friend and fellow young rockabilly and rock’n’roll talent Eddie Cochran also died tragically, and soon after, he too reached the number 1 spot.
Cochran was born on 3 October 1938 in Albert Lea, Minnesota. He became hooked on music in his early teens, learning guitar and playing along to country songs he heard on the radio. The family moved to California in 1952, and Cochran soon dropped out of high school to take the risk and become a full-time musician. He formed a duo with Hank Cochran, and they became The Cochran Brothers (they weren’t related).
During this time he also began writing material for himself and demoing solo work in studios when he could. Like his future friend Buddy Holly, he was naturally gifted from a young age, and keen to progress musically.
Cochran received his big break in 1956, when he was asked to appear in the musical comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. The rock’n’roll element of the film was originally intended as a satirical subplot, but all it did was speed up the genre’s popularity by bringing rock’n’roll onto the big screen. Eddie Cochran performed Twenty Flight Rock. The performance was so iconic, Paul McCartney later used it as his audition piece to join John Lennon’s The Quarrymen (see here). With his film idol looks and a killer track, Cochran was bound for stardom.
The summer of 1958 saw the release of his most famous work. The self-penned Summertime Blues is of course, a classic, perhaps most famously covered by The Who. Further great tracks followed, including C’mon, Everybody (later re-released on the back of its appearance in a Levi’s jeans advert in 1988) and Something Else. Both these tracks were covered by the Sex Pistols, but after Johnny Rotten had departed.
Cochran’s interest in getting the best out of recording in a studio was developing, and all his classic tracks featured guitar overdubs to create that unique sound. I wonder how this would have developed had he lived when psychedelia became popular?
Cochran was deeply affected by the deaths of Holly, Richardson and Valens, and recorded Three Stars in tribute to them. He began to have premonitions that he too would die young, and told family and friends that he wanted to spend more time in the studio to avoid suffering a similar fate. However, he needed the money, and pop impresario Larry Parnes made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. At the time, Parnes had quite a stable of homegrown rock’n’roll stars, including Billy Fury, Johnny Gentle (love that name) and Tony Sheridan (who the Beatles later backed, on their recording debut). Cochran accepted the offer to travel to the UK, along with his friend, Gene Vincent, and be the two biggest acts on the tour. Rock’n’roll fans loved the shows, and Cochran has been credited as having introduced the music of Ray Charles to UK audiences, with a blistering performance of What’d I Say.
The final show, at the Bristol Hippodrome, took place on 16 April. Cochran and his fiancée Sharon Sheeley were keen to get back to the US, and he asked for a lift with Gentle, but his car was full. Instead, the couple, Vincent and tour manager Pat Thompkins opted for a taxi. Travelling through Chippenham, Wiltshire, the speeding taxi blew a tire at a notorious black spot. The driver, George Martin (thankfully not the Beatles producer) lost control, and the car span backwards into a lamppost. Instinctively, Cochran threw himself over Sheeley to protect her, but a door flew open and he was thrown out of the car. Martin, Thompkins and Sheeley were uninjured, and Vincent had broken his collarbone, but Cochran’s head injuries were fatal. Martin was convicted for dangerous driving but had his license returned in 1969, but one of the music world’s most promising stars was gone, aged only 21.
Three Steps to Heaven had been recorded that January, with backing from The Crickets. It has their mark all over it, and is unlike Cochran’s earlier tracks, adopting the prevailing soft-pop sound of the time. Cochran adopts a smooth croon, not unlike Elvis, and the backing vocals bring to mind those of The Jordanaires. The three steps to heaven are to fall in love, get someone to fall in love with you back, and make them feel loved.
It hasn’t aged as well as his other hits, but the opening riff is classic Cochran, and David Bowie seems to have been a fan, having come up with something very similar on Hunky Dory‘s Queen Bitch in 1971. The lyrics to Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’ opening track, It’s No Game (No. 1) in 1980 also mention ‘free steps to heaven’.
Whether it would have been released as a single had Cohran not died, I’m not sure, but it’s mention of heaven made it a natural choice. Strangely, the song didn’t do nearly as well in his home country. Perhaps the fact the accident took place in the UK made the tragedy hit his British fans harder.
Over the years, Cochran’s star seems to have diminished, which seems a shame. He was one of the most innovative and influential musicians of the 50s. In addition to the stars already mentioned, guitar god Jimi Hendrix had Cochran played at his funeral, on his request. After a gig at the Hackney Empire, Cochran allowed a 13-year-old fan to carry his guitar out to a waiting limousine. The boy, Marc Feld, later became Marc Bolan, who was also to later die in a car accident. Following the crash which killed Cochran, his guitar was impounded at the police station, and a local policeman, David Harman, used the instrument to teach himself how to play. Harman went on to become Dave Dee, of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich fame. A memorial plaque was placed at the site of the accident, and was restored on the 50th anniversary in 2010.
Written by: Eddie Cochran & Bob Cochran
Producers: Eddie Cochran & Jerry Capeheart
Weeks at number 1: 2 (23 June-6 July)
Erasure songwriter Vince Clarke – 3 July
Tennis player Lottie Dod – 27 June
Politician Aneurin Bevan – 6 July