I’m in a music store in Berlin, looking at an old Gibson Skylark amp, when “C’mon Everybody” comes spilling out of the battered speaker on the wall. I haven’t heard it up close and so loud for a long time, though I know each inflection by heart: the snare a cardboard box smacked by Cochran’s producer, Jerry Capeheart; the stolen moments’ pleasure of the lyric’s invitation to party. And undercurrenting it all, like a thrumming electrical cable, is the guitar line, providing a pulse to the song, putting bite and adolescent urgency into this paean to kicks grabbed on the fly, when the folks are gone, when the bare feet will be stompin’ on the floor, when you’re gonna dance with three or four. There’s always the prospect of retribution, but who cares?
The Who cared. Their version of another Cochran song, the iconic “Summertime Blues,” is a centerpiece of Live at Leeds, a high-powered version contemporaneous with Blue Cheer’s amps-on-amphetamine rendition that became an unlikely hit single in 1968, when the influence of Cochran’s insistent guitar was beginning to make itself felt a generation beyond his compressed lifespan. Of all his contemporaries in the golden era of rock ‘n’ roll, Eddie Cochran was the master of the guitar riff. For me, playing that too-young-to-vote anthem each night this summer while on tour in Europe, where Cochran’s reputation has always exceeded his recognition in the States, raising a fuss and a holler and seeing first-hand how unmistakably recognizable and rousing that two-bar hook is, is to return to his work with renewed respect and admiration at how much he accomplished in a short time.
Eddie was perfectly positioned age-wise to turn his guitar prowess to rock ‘n’ roll. Born October 3, 1938, in Albert Lea, Minnesota, he took to the instrument early on. His family was originally from Oklahoma, but he only began thinking about a career in music after the Cochrans moved to Bell Gardens, California, where he hardly lasted a year in high school. The country and western influence might have been uppermost when he began performing with Hank Cochran (later a Nashville songwriter whose credits would include “Little Bitty Tear”) as the Cochran Brothers in 1955, even if they were no relation. But they were soon swept up in the whirlwind that would become rock and roll. The duo’s first records, which can be found on The Many Sides of Eddie Cochran, were tinged with western swinging (“Mr. Fiddle”) or hillbilly harmonies (“Two Blue Singing Stars” referencing Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams). Their last disc together was an unabashed bopper, “Tired and Sleepy,” leading to their divergence and Eddie becoming a solo artist.
Through his session work, backing such country boogies as Skeets MacDonald, Cochran came in contact with Jerry Capeheart, an aspiring songwriter looking for someone to sing his demos. The two hit it off, and soon produced Eddie’s first record under his own name: “Skinny Jim,” recorded in July 1956, a month after Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula” was released. Was Eddie aware of Gene’s recording when he inserted the catchphrase into his roughened and heavily echoed vocal? The song, not a hit at the time, shows how much Cochran had absorbed the new style. It led to a cameo in one of the first rock ‘n’ roll movies, The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. Someone turns on a television and there’s Eddie doing the hip-shake with his Gretsch 6120 to “Twenty Flight Rock,” his shoulders hunched over his guitar, his face radiant in the Technicolor, as promissory a performance in its own modest way as Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show.
The renown led to a contract with Liberty Records, and a minor hit with “Sittin’ In The Balcony,” written by John Loudermilk, our hero nuzzling his date in the “very last row.” Its teen romance softened Eddie’s appeal in Liberty’s eyes, and the album that followed — Singin’ To My Baby (tracks of which can be found on the Undying Love compilation) — seemed to position him in the pretty boy mode that the Philadelphia Italians — Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell — would soon claim as their own. “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” and “(Baby Let’s Go) To A Drive-In Show” might have been pleasantly sultry, but Eddie was made of sterner stuff, as when he suddenly lets out a growl in “Mean When I’m Mad,” a song that otherwise hardly sounds miffed. Though 1957 was highlighted by a package tour of Australia with Little Richard and Gene Vincent (opening the door to the latter’s friendship and their consequent touring together), Cochran’s records weren’t earning him wider acclaim.
Recognizing this, Eddie visited Jerry’s Sunset Parks apartment in Hollywood in March of 1958 to toss around song ideas. “I knew there had been a lot of songs about summer,” Capeheart would recall, “but none about the hardships of summer. And of all the seasons there had never been a blues about summer. They had ‘em for winter, fall spring…” Eddie had the classic riff, and Connie “Guybo” Smith, his bass player since high school, strummed underneath the vocal like another rhythm guitar, part of the growing upsurge of the Fender electric bass as it began to transform rock ‘n’ roll’s bottom end (both Buddy Holly and Elvis had started with “doghouse” stand-up bass players), helping to create the template of the modern rock ‘n’ roll band. Cochran double-tracked his guitars, a relatively new technique. The surprising thing about the texture of “Summertime Blues” is that it’s driven by an acoustic guitar, punctuated by a clattering, hand-clapping drum pattern. A sense of humor helped. Eddie liked to answer his phone with the Kingfish’s distinctive “Hello dere!” and used the voice to deliver his sonorous taglines of adult authority.
His were specifically teenage blues, their subject matter all too youthful. But he was a teen idol in a game that many thought wouldn’t last much past a fad. He wasn’t alone in this mindset: Buddy Holly was recording with strings; Elvis had starred in films and was preparing to go into the army; Bobby Darin followed “Splish Splash” with Brecht’s “Mack the Knife” backed by a full big band. Eddie began to think of a future in production, session work, going home. But in early 1960, he went to England to join a package show with Gene Vincent headlining. Considered the “first full tour of England by an American rocker” according to Nik Cohn in Rock From The Beginning, the ensuing furor was so great, and Eddie’s stage presence so forceful, that soon they were equally billed, as the tour became a sensation, especially for those waiting in the wings, including a young George Harrison, who followed the tour from stop to stop. Where in America he was just another teenage singer pushing 22, in England Eddie Cochran was becoming a superstar.
Even with Sharon joining him on the tour, the long weeks at the Odeons and the Hippodromes were exhausting, following on a series of one-nighters in the Midwest before he’d left America. He was due to go home for 10 days on Easter Sunday, then return to Britain for another 10 weeks, after which, he told his family, he hoped to be off the road. He planned on working with Capeheart on a new singer they’d found, Glen Campbell, and other studio projects. He was mindful of his friend Buddy Holly, whom he’d attempted to pay tribute to with “Three Stars In Heaven,” recorded the summer before, and the toll the road exacted.
Cherished Memories, a 2001 documentary, tells the story of that fateful drive on the night of April 17 to Heathrow airport along the A4 near Chippenham. Gene, Sharon and Eddie are sitting in the back. The taxi is going too fast. There is a missed turn, a frantic swerve to get back in the right direction. Gene and Sharon survive; Eddie doesn’t. In May, 1960, “Three Steps to Heaven” is rush-released in the UK, hitting No. 1. In America it doesn’t chart. But Eddie is already a Legendary Master, or at least that’s what his record company (now absorbed within United Artists) calls the series in which he is given a double-album greatest hits collection in 1971, and for which I was asked to write liner notes.
It was summer when I started gathering anecdote and b-side, talking to Capeheart and Sheeley and even, I believe, his mother. It was to be a long-form essay, and I’d reserved all of August to make sure it was worthy of the songs Eddie has placed in my heart all these years. But then my own summertime blues began when I get a call from S., with whom I was in the same college class, and the object of a long abiding post-teenage crush. She invited me to drive to Canada with her, all the way to the West Coast, and who knows where after that. It was tempting, but I couldn’t go, even as I imagined nights camped under the stars, somewhere between Winnipeg and Vancouver. “You can’t have the car/ ’cause you didn’t work a lick.”
Eddie knew how to work a lick, that’s for sure.