Rock and roll fans are being hit with a host of sad milestones these days. For instance, today marks the 40th anniversary of Janis Joplin’s drug overdose death in a Hollywood motel in 1970, which comes just two weeks after the anniversary of the passing of guitar god Jimi Hendrix that same year. And last week saw the 55th anniversary of the death of actor James Dean, who, though not a musician, greatly influenced the look and spirit of early rock and roll.
I may as well add another grim rock reminder to today’s post since I’ve brought us all down already anyway.
Yesterday would have been Eddie Cochran’s 72nd birthday had his short but influential career not been halted prematurely in a car crash just over 50 years ago. A gifted singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Cochran left us with a host of great songs, like Somethin’ Else, Twenty Flight Rock, and his biggest hit, Summertime Blues.
Cochran was born in Minnesota on October 3, 1938, to Okie parents who had moved north to find work. He was something of a musical prodigy, able to master guitar songs after a single listen. While Eddie was in his teens, his family moved briefly to Oklahoma City where they lived in an apartment building that was later the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that Timothy McVeigh would bomb in 1995. The family then settled near Los Angeles, where Cochran decided to drop out of high school to pursue a career in music, even though he was an honor student.
Success came quickly after Cochran performed Twenty Flight Rock in 1956 in one of the first great rock and roll films, The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. Another rocker who performed in the film was Gene Vincent, who sang his early rockabilly anthem Be-Bop-a-Lula. The two would become fast friends.
Cochran would string together several hits over the next few years, led by Summertime Blues, which peaked at #8 on the charts during the summer of 1958. The song has since been covered by seemingly everyone, including The Who, who performed it at Woodstock.
On April 16, 1960, Eddie was in England on tour with Gene Vincent. The taxi they were riding in skidded into a lamp post around midnight, and Cochran was thrown through the windshield. He died in a hospital in Bath later that night. He was only 21.
(Vincent had a history of bad luck with moving vehicles, beginning as a young man, when he had permanently injured his leg in a motorcycle crash – an injury that led him to a life of strong drink. He never recovered from the death of his friend, and died prematurely only eleven years later.)
Although Cochran’s career was short, his feverish guitar and singing style influenced many later rockers, including a young Paul McCartney, who played Twenty Flight Rock when trying out for a Liverpool group known as the Quarrymen. The group was led by a young man named John Lennon, who provides us with another sad rock milestone next week with what should have been his 70th birthday had he not stopped two bullets from the gun of a psychotic fan in 1980.
In the recent re-release of his Double Fantasy album, Lennon is heard paying tribute to his main American musical influences when he whispers, “This is for Gene and Eddie and Elvis and Buddy” at the beginning of a stripped-down version of (Just Like) Starting Over.