Wayne Cochran Was One Of Rock’s More Colorful Footnotes

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A heartfelt Rocknuts salute to Wayne Cochran, The White Knight Of Soul, who passed away this week at the age of 78. Cochran is not widely remembered today, and he wasn’t really widely known in his heyday of the mid-1960s either. His recordings never cracked the Billboard Top 40, and he will always be little more than a footnote in Rock’s long strange saga. But as one of the most outrageous performers of his day, Cochran’s story is one of Rock’s more colorful footnotes that simply shouldn’t be completely forgotten.

His obituaries say that Wayne Cochran’s biggest claim to fame was writing the song “Last Kiss” in 1961 when he was 21. The Cavaliers’ version of this morbid and melodramatic pop song reached #2 in 1964, and Pearl Jam’s 1998 version also reached #2, their highest-charting single. That’s a significant achievement for any songwriter, but it’s not what Cochran was aiming for. He had bigger fish to fry.

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The central narrative of Rock involved young white musicians borrowing (or appropriating) the styles of the R&B and Soul masters – Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and the rest. But Wayne Cochran was the only one with the balls (and perhaps the lack of self-awareness) to try and emulate the act of none other than James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. The manic energy, the crazy dance moves, the screechin’ and a-hollerin’, the kick-ass backing band – Cochran brought it all on stage.

And you had to see it live because it didn’t translate very well on record. Unfortunately there’s not very much video of Cochran’s live shows floating around, but this performance on Swingin’ Time from 1966 is a good if somewhat tame example of Cochran’s shows in the mid-Sixties. The first thing you notice is the hair. It is a thing of wonder, kind of like the Trump hairdo inflated to 60 psi, surely one of the most egregious structures ever to adorn a human head. This guy was bigger than life.

By 1967 Cochran predictably took his show to Las Vegas where it is said he invented the garish caped jumpsuit look that Elvis later adopted. By the 1970s Cochran deflated his hair a bit and became something of a parody of his own act, as the second video attests. But it also shows his commitment to his backing band, and Cochran remained proud of the jazz/rock chops of his musicians. Perhaps his most lasting contribution to contemporary music was discovering Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report, one of the greatest bass players who ever lived.

Ever the showman, Wayne Cochran turned to the church in the 1980s and spent the rest of his days – also somewhat predictably – as an evangelical minister. I guess that’s where you turn to when James Brown can’t bring you the truth anymore. What a wonderfully strange character this guy was.

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