The grave of Eddie Cochran lies in a peaceful memorial park in Cypress, California. It isn’t one of rock’s most famous landmarks – but it should be. Had he been laid to rest even a few years later, it almost certainly would be.
The quietness of Forest Lawn Memorial park is a stark contrast to the raucous, and energetic final concert he played almost sixty years ago, on April 16, 1960, in the Bristol Hippodrome – the final stop on a tour that was as controversial as it was groundbreaking.
By 1960, the original rock and roll movement was beginning to lose traction. After all, Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard had denounced rock and had become a priest, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry had their respective troubles with the law, and Buddy Holly and Richie Valens were dead. That left two bonafide, legitimate American rock acts remaining – Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, and both of them set sail for the United Kingdom in late 1959.
Gene Vincent had been a star in England due to his controversial and, well, weird stage shows. He was a one-hit-wonder in his native U.S. – but English audiences were enamored with his moody, leather-clad demeanor. Nothing had quite been seen like it in Britain before, and audiences flocked to his concerts in droves as they were desperate for live American rock ‘n’ roll. There had been a few homegrown British rock acts, but aside from Billy Fury, all were cheap and manufactured alternatives – trying and failing, to reproduce the sound that seemingly only Americans could master. It was due to his growing success in the U.K. that Vincent was the top star for the 1960 tour, with the young Cochran flown over as a supporting act.
However, it didn’t take long for people to find out who the true star of the tour was. Cochran’s major hits had been catchy, two-minute singles – such as the famous Summertime Blues and the U.K. hit C’mon Everybody, though he had a good reputation as a musician, his reputation as a live act was not as known. He was young, having only just turned 21, and perhaps in the minds of U.K. promoters, nervous and inexperienced.
How wrong they were. Eddie Cochran was a phenomenal performer – a prodigal guitarist, and the most charismatic live rock act Britain had ever seen at that point. Released from the confines of a studio, Cochran went all-out on stage, spurred by the deafening cheers of the audiences that watched him. His live performances can be found on Youtube and they still sound wild today. Among Cochran’s live arsenal was the Ray Charles song What I’d Say, a number that had not been heard by most British audiences before – and it wasn’t long before every band in the country was playing it.
Although the young crowds lapped up his performances, the reviews the tour received in the media were abysmal. One reporter called the shows ”a prolonged assault on the eardrums”, unable to process why the duo ”seemed to get enjoyment out of leg-kicking, face-pulling and making the youngsters scream”. It seems the U.K. press was far too conservative for Cochran and Vincent, however, the appalling reviews only flamed their fires further. The pair of them were now the most notorious and talked-about live act in the country – going from town to town entertaining future superstars in the audience. George Harrison had seen Eddie Cochran in Liverpool and was stunned, so much so that he bought a picture of the young singer and put it up on his wall. Recalling the show years later, he said:
”There was a funny break in-between songs. He was standing at the microphone and as he started to talk he put his two hands through his hair, pushing it back. And a girl, one lone voice, screamed out, ‘Oh Eddie!’ and he coolly murmured into the mike, ‘Hi honey.’ I thought, ‘Yes! That’s it- rock ‘n’ roll!”
With all the women, booze, and sudden popularity that Eddie received – it didn’t take long for dissension to rear its ugly head behind the curtain. Gene Vincent was a fragile, insecure performer and an even more difficult man. He was washed up in the U.S. and never scored a major hit again after Be-Bop-a-Lula, a fact that made him desperately cling to his status as the main event of the tour. He was getting outdone by Cochran night after night and began to drink heavily to compensate. ”Wanna meet Henry?” he’d ask if provoked and would pull out the knife he had always in his pocket. Promoters had considered demoting Gene to the undercard of the tour, opening for Eddie instead. However, knowing his volatile nature, Cochran kept the billing unchanged. Vincent’s leg had been catastrophically damaged some years before in a motorbike accident, resulting in a sinister, unsettling limp which had become his trademark. Racked with both pain and insecurity, Gene was a liability, and Cochran became his de-facto babysitter on the road. However, they were just as bad as each other at times. Before one show, Eddie got so drunk before he had to be suspended by his guitar strap being wrapped around his microphone stand. He also played a practical joke on Gene which backfired significantly, hiding his leg cast on top of a wardrobe and then going out. He came back to find the hotel in a state of mayhem as Gene, wielding ‘Henry’, had gone ballistic at a clerk.
Eddie was having personal trouble, too. It’s just that nobody knew it. He was friends with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens – and they had been killed on the road the year prior. Not just killed, but decimated. They, along with the Big Bopper and the pilot, were destroyed in Iowa after their plane crashed on a freezing February night. Buddy and Richie were young, just as Eddie was. Both of them were from dirt-poor backgrounds, just like Eddie was, and both of them wrote their own songs, just like Eddie did. He couldn’t stop thinking of the comparisons and had a grim feeling that the similarities didn’t end there. Cochran began to have nightmares about being killed on the road – he thought it was just a matter of time before he met his end. He didn’t want to tour, he wanted to be a studio artist who never traveled, and, as a result, never got into any trouble. However, he couldn’t turn down the offer to come to the U.K., he needed money – so he was here reluctantly, wanting to get out as soon as possible. It was April 1960, and soon he’d be home.
One thing that helped Eddie was the arrival of his girlfriend, Sharon Sheely. She’d been a successful songwriter in her own right, writing hits for Ricky Martin and even Eddie himself. Eddie needed to combat his homesickness – and her arrival couldn’t have come soon enough for him. Sharon, however, met a different Eddie Cochran than the one she had known so well in California. Upon her arrival, he told her to go into the nearest record store and buy all of the Buddy Holly records she could find. He hadn’t listened to his music since Buddy’s death. Sharon was apprehensive, asking him if he was sure – to which he cryptically replied ”it doesn’t make me upset anymore”. Eddie and Gene were now racing up and down the roads of Britain, still mesmerizing audiences, and the final stop of the tour was in Bristol.
(Eddie Cochran with a fortune teller – one of the last images taken of him, a dark foreshadowing)
The lights of the Bristol Hippodrome were out. The audience sat there in anticipation – as the opening notes of What I’d Say rang out on Cochran’s guitar. Slowly, the lights were raised, with Eddie’s back facing the crowd – he then swung around and performed the Ray Charles song with his usual potency, before delivering two of the most rambunctious hours the audience had ever heard. By that point, he had outgrown his rock’n’roll origins and had developed into an all-around entertainer – covering jazz, swing, country, and even big band numbers. The Bristol crowd would have heard all of it – and poor Gene had to follow.
By around 11.20pm, the show was finished and the tour was over. Now it was time to finally go home – the two singers piled into the back of a hired taxi, along with Sheely and the road manager, Patrick Tompkins. At the helm was 20-year old driver George Martin. The car had been used for a wedding earlier and was littered with confetti. Eddie sat in the middle of the backseat, with Vincent and Sheely sitting on either side.
All of them were excited to go home, with Eddie singing in the backseat and Gene trying to get some rest before his flight. Their enthusiasm must have gotten to the driver because he was driving incredibly fast. ”Slow down, man” Cochran said – ”you’re going too fast”, Sheely was getting scared – and rightly so. Martin was driving like a madman – whizzing by corners and junctions, as his passengers saw the blurry streets fly past them.
Rowden Hill in Chippenham has a particularly nasty bend, even today. It was even worse sixty years ago, and Martin paid little respect to its curvature. It was here that he finally lost control of the Ford Consul, an inevitability waiting to happen due to his so-called driving. The speeding cab blew a tire and came thundering around the bend – gathering even more speed and momentum in its journey. It struck a concrete lamppost – opening the rear door and throwing all of its occupants in the back to the outside. All three bodies hit the ground with a thud, and residents came outside after hearing what they thought was a plane crash. The passengers, instead of London Airport, now had St. Martin’s Hospital as their destination.
It was here that Eddie Cochran’s premonition came true. He had a particularly violent landing and sustained head injuries that nobody could have survived. All of the other passengers lived through the ordeal, although Vincent’s already bad leg was made even worse. The driver was unharmed and escaped the collision entirely. Eddie Cochran died at 4.10pm on the 17th of April – it later was revealed that he had thrown himself over Sheeley to protect her, and was thrown out of the car with the most severe force.
The U.K. tour had gone from triumph to tragedy at a moment’s notice. Cochran was buried on April 25th.
(The wrecked Ford Consul)
It is now sixty years later, and Eddie Cochran’s legacy still lives on, though mostly in the U.K. His songs were what got Paul McCartney into the Quarrymen – later The Beatles. Marc Bolan idolized him and would later die in a car crash just as Cochran himself did. Jimi Hedrix always said he wanted Cochran’s music played at his funeral, and got his wish 10 years later. The importance of that final, ill-fated tour should not be understated, as many of the later British Invasion acts were in attendance and perhaps would have not been as directly influenced had the tour not happened.
For Cochran himself, though, we are left to ask ”what could have been?”. He was probably the most talented of all his peers, and seemed to ebb and flow with music tastes and trends, a quality seldom possessed in pop music at the time. Had he not been killed so young, it is without question that he would be one of the all-time great rock artists. One can only imagine what his output in the latter 1960s would have sounded like. He had moved on from his two-minute, rockabilly hits, and was already embracing change at the time of his death. We only got a glimpse of what he was capable enough – but that was enough to cement his legacy in music history forever. His career came and went so soon, it was truly a ‘blink and you miss it’ scenario.
He’s perhaps rock’s greatest case of ‘what if?’
edit – I’m really enjoying these features on historical figures. if you guys want me to do more, please let me know!