Singer, bandleader and showman par excellence Wayne Cochran passed away on November 21 at the age of 78. Alec Palao explains why he mattered.
The late Wayne Cochran’s outrageously-coiffed personality was part and parcel of a showbiz spectacle that would have impressed even PT Barnum, yet it served a purpose. Cochran took the grunt’n’groan vernacular of soul music into new arenas like Las Vegas. His vocal chords probably suffered, but the man put his heart and soul into communicating his voluble passion for black music. Consequently, the singer was accepted by James Brown, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson and other black stars of the day. Similarly, Cochran and his trusted sidemen the C.C. Riders were able to rock the house at tough-sell chitlin’ circuit palaces such as the Apollo in Harlem. He came on as a novelty and left as a fully-fledged blue-eyed soul brother.
Wayne Cochran was also no carpetbagger. Born Talvin Wayne Cochran near Macon, Georgia, he grew up in roughly the same environs his idol James Brown and friend Otis Redding had, be it on the other side of the tracks. After getting his start with various rock’n’roll outfits, in 1959 Cochran cut his first disc and the next five years would witness a succession of releases, most of which only made regional noise at best. One item however, would ultimately become Cochran’s greatest success, though in another’s hands. His lightly morbid but undeniably catchy original ‘Last Kiss’ hit the top of the charts in the summer of 1964 in a faithful treatment by Texans J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers. This classic “death disc” has since been covered by many, not least Pearl Jam, the healthy royalties from whose version would come as an unforeseen blessing for Cochran in later years.
By late 1964 however, Cochran had morphed into full-fledged R&B mode, having developed a hamburger-throated persona that unashamedly drew upon the onstage routine of the master, James Brown. He assembled the first of what would be many line-ups of the CC Riders, an extended team of crack accompanists, sometimes over a dozen in number, that provided the powerful musical backbone for Cochran’s rubber-ankled moves. It was almost as Cochran viewed himself and the band as a Caucasian analogue to the sensationalist revues prevalent in the black music world. Every performer in that arena had to be larger than life, whether it be Brown with his refusal to leave the stage, Solomon Burke and his regal robes, or Little Richard’s pancaked flamboyance. Cochran’s ace in the hole was the “do,” a towering platinum pompadour that had been partly inspired by an encounter with albino brethren Johnny and Edgar Winter.
For the best part of two decades, Cochran and the CC Riders were an unavoidable presence in America’s clubland, garnering fans as disparate as Jackie Gleason and the MC5, as they graduated from holding court at adult nightclubs like the Barn in Miami in the mid-60s, to numerous dates at psychedelic ballrooms and extended residencies in the showrooms of Las Vegas by the turn of the 1970s. It was in the latter environment that Cochran was an unlikely pioneer, effecting a change of attitude at a subliminal level. Quite apart from helping integrate the whitebread casinos’ entertainment schedule, his show was essentially no different to any found in the black clubs, only now delivered to an unsuspecting audience of blue-rinse matrons and weekend high rollers. His show was a major ticket, and no less that Elvis Presley took note of Cochran’s sweaty exhortations for potential use in his own presentation. The singer would later take credit for turning Elvis onto the white jumpsuit as essential stage gear, a dubious distinction perhaps, but still a notable example of the lingering influence of Cochran’s showmanship.
And so his power-packed stage show and outrageous image made Wayne Cochran a household name in the US, bolstered by numerous television appearances and the occasional movie slot. All of which, when viewed today, give those of us who weren’t lucky to witness a CC Riders performance an inkling as to just what the fuss was all about. On record, it was a slightly different story. Cochran had been signed to Brown’s alma mater King Records at one time, but it was not until he joined the Mercury label in 1965 that his rasping R&B voice was properly heard on vinyl. Of the records he made in this time period, the most significant was ‘Goin’ Back To Miami,’ a stomping soul paean to his adopted hometown that remains a cherished anthem there to this day.
Moving on to Chess and a more sympathetic producer in Abner Spector, Cochran cut a full-length album in 1968, recorded in part at FAME in Muscle Shoals, where he dialled down the gargling of the Mercury era to enter country soul territory with tracks like Eddie Hinton’s ‘Big City Woman’ and an intriguingly rearranged ‘I’m Leaving It Up To You.’ He further ventured down this road with an excellent treatment of Charlie Rich’s ‘Life’s Little Ups And Downs.’ For the most part, the bouffanted belter stuck with the bluesier material he understood best, although encouraged by the Riders, Cochran flirted with psychedelic rock flavours on a second album, for Starday-King in 1970.
In spring 1971, the singer underwent a second round of surgery on his weather-beaten throat, and while convalescing made a third album, this time for Epic. Released in 1972, “Cochran!” found the singer comfortable at last with an easy blend of funky soul and strong original material, and while it got a rave in Rolling Stone, the release failed to change his record fortunes. Instead, it was back on the road with a Riders line-up that now included future bass-playing maverick Jaco Pastorius. Indeed, the band’s personnel were frequently tagged in musicians’ polls.
During his years on the road, and despite, or perhaps because of that life and its perennial distractions, Cochran developed an interest in spirituality and religion. It led him to study the Bible intensely during the long hours spent travelling between dates. When he gave up the C.C. Riders at the start of the 1980s, it was not long before he was called to start his own ministry. From then on that time, Cochran’s church in Hialeah, Florida became his life. Though he had stopped performing, like most artists-turned-clergy, Pastor Cochran couldn't get it out of his system: at the church’s energy-filled services, ‘Hold On I’m Comin’’ was now ‘Hold On He’s Comin’.’ And the occasional reunion of the much-missed C.C. Riders band were a reminder of the impact that the act had upon the club scene of the 1960s and 70s.
Like many, I had been long fascinated by Wayne Cochran and his outlandish image, and always made a point to pick up his stuff, which could vacillate from lascivious R&B like ‘The Coo’ or the psych-tinged flipside ‘Up In My Mind’ to useful deejay items like ‘Chopper 70’ (admittedly, though credited on the label as vocalist,” Cochran doesn’t actually appear on the latter, an instrumental from his “biker funk” period, though one assumes he was cracking the whip in the control room). While his discography does include a couple of Northern Soul pick hits, Wayne Cochran records tend to be more the province of the open-minded crate digger than the hardcore collector. My own digging in the King tape vaults would come up with a fair tranche of unheard Cochran gold, not least in the shape of a phony live album cut in the studio in 1969 while at the height of his Vegas visibility. It remains a wondrous sneak peek at the man in action in his prime, on a programme of wigged-out Stax and Motown arrangements, with Cochran pausing only to give his tortured vocal cords respite with folksy asides, some of which are classic. Indeed, I played the “alimony” rap from his eleven-minute extrapolation of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ so much that my poor wife Cindy threatened actual divorce.
The unreleased “Wayne Cochran Show” would comprise one half of the 2 CD anthology I assembled for Ace, “Goin’ Back To Miami: The Soul Sides 1965-1970.” It was a smorgasbord of what I felt were his best moments in the studio, and naturally, I had to talk to the gent himself. And so it was that I found myself sitting opposite this iconic personage – the “do” now considerably less hirsute – in a Hialeah diner, ready to discuss his unique career. Openly curious of my interest, he delivered an instructive, if nonchalant and occasionally self-deprecating, interview. A telling moment came when I left the table for a moment, and a gaggle of young women sitting in the booth behind us wanted to know who he was. The recorder was still running, and while still somewhat non-plussed, there was an audible pride in Wayne’s voice as he briefly recounted his resume for their benefit.
The most telling quote from our chat had been the following, profound enough that I used it as the intro for the subsequent liner notes: “I felt I didn’t have a good voice, but I could perform: I could live the song, and so my whole thing was making that song real. If somebody came up and told me, “you have a great show”, that would insult me; that’s not a show – that’s me.” In an interesting juxtaposition, the following day I interviewed another enigmatic performer - Iggy Pop - who expressed genuine interest in what Pastor Cochran was up to. It reaffirmed just how much Wayne Cochran had left his mark on most anyone who witnessed him in action. No doubt he’s upstairs now, bringing the house down as usual. Sure glad I got to shake his hand.