As Billy Joel once sang only the Good die young. At 21 years old, rock star Eddie Cochran was unfairly taken from us in the late evening of Saturday, April 16, 1960 while on a UK tour. He left behind such rock & roll classics as “Summertime Blues” and “C’mon Everybody”. He influenced such musicians as The Beatles, The Who, The Sex Pistols, and Brian Setzer. Cochran’s death was the final nail in coffin of the early rock & roll era. Little Richard had left music to become a preacher, Chuck Berry violated the Mann Act and was sent to prison, Elvis had been drafted, scandal had ruined the career of Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper had died in a plane crash. Following Eddie’s demise we were left for a time with teen idols that had good looks but not much else. Then The Beatles saved us all! What may not be understood about Eddie Cochran’s final tour was that perhaps Eddie had more influence on the next wave of rock & roll then we give him credit for.
The death of his friend Buddy Holly left Eddie devastated. He was ready to give up life on the road and spend his time in the studio making music. However, like Buddy Holly, financial responsibilities required him to go back out on tour. After cutting his final single (“Three Steps To Heaven”) with the surviving members of Buddy Holly’s Crickets, Eddie accepted an offer to tour the UK. The headliner on this tour was his friend Gene Vincent, but by all accounts it was Cochran who the people came to see.
The tour began in Ipswich, England. Eddie walked out on stage, and said “It’s great to be here in ‘Hipswich” as he gyrated his hips. His shows on this tour usually started the same way. The curtains would open to reveal Eddie with his back to the audience as he started playing the Ray Charles classic “What’d I Say” on his Gretsch 6120. The support acts on the tour were British manager Larry Parnes’ stable of stars. One of these was Vince Eager (Parnes would always re-name his stars), who remembers Eddie being “like a cross between James Dean and Elvis.” Another Parnes creation Georgie Fame remembers that it was Eddie that introduced British musicians to the music of Ray Charles. Within six months every band in England was playing “What’d I Say” because they had heard Eddie play it. Eddie’s influence over British musicians didn’t just come from his musical tastes.
Teenage musicians like Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, and George Harrison all went to see that tour, or knew someone who did. As they sat close to their hero they noticed something new and different. Eddie’s third string was unwound! This is a pretty major event in the history of rock guitar. British musicians at the time didn’t know about different string gauges, and they could tell that Eddie was getting some great string bending in and had to know how it was done. An unwound third string (for non-guitarists out there) made string bending far easier to do then with the thick gauge strings used in England at the time. In his way to make playing easier for himself Eddie had impacted virtually every young guitar player in England!
When you have a bunch of musicians in their early 20’s on a big rock & roll tour you can imagine things to get a little wild. When the tour came through Manchester Gene & Eddie were put up in a hotel. When the tour manager arrived the next day to take them to a radio interview the hotel manager came out screaming “Get Them out of here, I don’t want them in my hotel, I want the out now”. It turned out that the night before Gene & Eddie had invited all the chambermaids in the hotel to their room. Sixteen girls in all and two guys! The housekeeper heard all the noise and banged on the door, causing the girls to find places to hide. The housekeeper thought she had found the all, and left the room. One girl had hid in the wardrobe, one was under the bed, and one had hidden in the shower. After the housekeeper left they kept partying, she came back and found the rest of the girls. The hotel manager was fit to be tied. (Higham) Backstage debauchery aside, the tour was a huge success. The tour would earn $250,000 (about $7575300.00 today according to Google). Sadly, all the fun and success wouldn’t last.
Gene & Eddie played the last gig of the tour on April 16, 1960 at the Hippodrome Theater in Bristol. Eddie was ready to get home a record some new songs for his second album. Eddie had hoped to get a ride to the airport with supporting act Johnny Gentle, but his car was full. A taxi was called. Eddie, his girlfriend Sharon Sheeley (writer of the Ricky Nelson his “Poor Little Fool”), and Gene Vincent set off for the airport in the cab. The driver was driving erratically, at times hitting speeds of 80mph, in route to the airport. As they reached Rowden Hill the taxi blew a tire, and smashed into a lamppost after skidding along for 150 feet. Gen Vincent would later recall the accident: “Eddie went out the door… skidded 250 yards on the back of his head. I picked Eddie up and carried him.” Before the accident, between yells at the driver to slow down, Sharon and Eddie were in the backseat singing “California, Here I come.” As Eddie was thrown from the vehicle so was his famous guitar, as well as his sheet music which was seen blowing in the wind. Eddie died 15 hours later from severe head injuries.
He was buried Cypress, California at the Forrest Lawn Memorial Park. (Stephens) Eddie may not be as recognized today as say Elvis Presley, but his influence was far reaching-especially outside of the US. When a young Paul McCartney asked John Lennon if he could join his band it was the fact that Paul knew how to play Eddie’s 20 Flight Rock that landed him the gig. Thanks for all the great music Eddie, R.I.P!
Higham, Darrel & Mundy, Julie. “Don’t Forget Me: The Eddie Cochran Story.” Higham, Darrel & Mundy, Julie. Don’t Forget Me: The Eddie Cochran Story. New York, New York: Billboard Books, 2001. 187-188.
Stephens, Michael. “Somethin’ Else!” Vintage Rock December 2013: 21-22.