A little over a year after “the day the music died”—when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash—Eddie Cochran met a similarly violent fate on April 17, 1960, dealing another critical blow to the fledgling rock ‘n’ roll genre.
Cochran, 21, was riding in the back of a speeding taxi that was taking him from a Saturday-night gig at the Bristol Hippodrome to London so that he could catch a flight to New York for his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The driver lost control and hit a lamp post as they entered Chippenham, 14 miles northeast of Bath.
Sitting alongside his girlfriend and songwriter Sharon Sheeley, who had just turned 20, and fellow rocker Gene Vincent, who was asleep, Cochran had repeatedly asked the driver to slow down. The section of the A4 between Bath and Chippenham is pretty tortuous in parts, as I found out while retracing his final journey.
He had enough time to shield Sheeley as the car crashed and threw its passengers out onto the road. Sheeley recalled later that as she and the unconscious Cochran were loaded into the ambulance, the thoughtful medic clasped the lovers’ hands for their last ride together. They were transferred to St. Martin’s Hospital where he died of severe head injuries about 4 p.m. It was Easter Sunday.
For some rock stars who found fame and fortune much later, the ’50s might have been the high point of rock ‘n’ roll. Tom Petty recalled in a 2009 Rolling Stone interview how he and fellow Travelling Wilbury George Harrison shared an obsession with ’50s music, and he wryly noted, “With George, I think his interest in rock waned around 1962.”
Mick Jagger, who was 16 when Eddie Cochran died, was a huge fan. “The cat is royalty, man,” he told Pittsburgh radio program director John Rook in 1964. (Read more about their encounter, and about Rook’s friendship with Cochran at his fascinating site here.)
About 40 years later Jagger recalled, “On the records, his sound was really fantastic. They sound very crystal clear, with a good use of sound in itself—beautifully recorded, produced records … (T)hey happened to be very influential on all British bands coming up in the ’60s, and still even now these records are known to British musicians.”
The Stones covered Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” on their 1981 tour:
The Who were also fans:
Who does it better, Keith or Sid?
After several family visits over the years to Bath, which is deadly in its own right, I belatedly realized its tragic significance. So I made a pilgrimage to the various Cochran sites in September 2015. You can see more pictures at my Tumblr page.
Similarly, I also realized that I had unknowingly driven past Cochran’s grave in Orange County, California, on many occasions. So I popped in during my next journey there a few weeks later. He was buried at Forest Lawn’s Cypress location, about 30 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. His parents, who survived him, are on one side, and a memorial to Sheeley, who died in 2002, is on another.
Lest we forget: Sharon Sheeley was more than the girlfriend. She wrote songs for many singers, including Cochran (“Somethin’ Else”) and Valens (“Hurry Up”). At the age of 15, she wrote Poor Little Fool, which became a No. 1 hit for Ricky Nelson three years later in 1958. I wrote her obituary when she died in 2002: Sharon Sheeley Obit
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2015 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING