Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… April 17, 1960: Eddie Cochran, Rock 'n' Roll Pioneer and Teen Idol, Dies

The rockabilly legend captured teenage joy and frustration like no other – and was an influence on everyone from the Beatles to Sid Vicious.

eddie cochran
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Eddie Cochran's short, explosive career has influenced countless artists since.

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Eddie Cochran was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s first truly great figures, and on April 17, 1960, he also became one of rock ‘n’ roll’s first tragic victims.

Cochran was on his way to London after an April 16 show at the Bristol Hippodrome during a raucous, sold-out tour of the U.K. with Gene Vincent. The two musicians, along with their tour manager and Cochran’s girlfriend Sharon Sheeley, were in a taxi speeding through Rowden Hill near Chippenham when the driver lost control. As the car hit a concrete lamppost, Cochran was thrown into the road; he was rushed to Chippenham Community Hospital but died from massive head trauma the following afternoon. He was just 21 years old. All of the other occupants of the car survived.

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Like Buddy Holly, who was killed in a plane crash just 14 months before him, Cochran represented something new and thrilling to teenage audiences – he not only sang rock ’n’ roll, he wrote his own songs… but, unlike Holly, he also projected an image of irresistible danger – and effortless cool. A 17-year-old George Harrison, who had seen Cochran play in Liverpool shortly before he died, later remembered being awestruck by his stage presence.

“He was standing at the microphone and as he started to talk he put his two hands through his hair, pushing it back,” Harrison recalled. “And a girl, one lone voice, screamed out, ‘Oh, Eddie!’ and he coolly murmured into the mic, ‘Hi honey.’

“I thought, ‘Yes! That’s it – rock and roll!’”

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Born in rural Minnesota in October 1938, Cochran’s early musical grounding was in country, learning drums, piano and guitar, and after a move to California in 1952, he teamed up with the (unrelated) country singer Hank Cochran; the pair released a handful of singles as The Cochran Brothers, before, in 1956, Eddie saw Elvis Presley, and his world changed.

Splitting from Hank Cochran, the 18-year-old Eddie took inspiration from Elvis, and set about writing songs that held the same urgency and excitement the King had captured, but with a fresh and wholly distinctive “rockabilly” twist. The single “Skinny Jim” followed – now recognized as a groundbreaking rockabilly classic.

That same year, Cochran was thrust into the spotlight as “one of America’s top rock ‘n’ rollers” playing himself in the Jayne Mansfield musical comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, in which he performed the song “Twenty Flight Rock”. According to Beatles mythology, it was after a 15-year-old Paul McCartney played “Twenty Flight Rock” to John Lennon that he was asked to join the Quarrymen.

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Cochran may have taken inspiration from Elvis – but with his signature Gretsch electric guitar and distinctive, attitude-laden singing voice, he exuded a new level of rebelliousness, most perfectly caught in the outstanding trio of singles “Summertime Blues”, “C’mon Everybody” and “Somethin’ Else”. Like no others before, these three songs crystallized all the angst and the joy of being a teenager: “We’ll really have a party, but we gotta put a guard outside / If the folks come home, I’m afraid they’re gonna have my hide,” he sang in “C’mon Everybody”. “There’ll be no more movies for a week or two, no more runnin’ ‘round with the usual crew… Who cares? C’mon everybody!”

“Summertime Blues” had scored Cochran a Billboard No. 8 hit in 1958, but it was in the U.K. that the kids really went wild for the young rocker. “C’mon Everybody”, released the same year, made No. 6 in the British charts, and in January of 1960 he accepted an offer to tour the U.K. with his friend (and fellow face of teenage rebellion) Gene Vincent – so great was demand for tickets that what was initially supposed to be a short series of dates was extended by 10 weeks beyond its scheduled run. Tragically, the April 16 Bristol show would be his last.

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Eddie Cochran only recorded one studio album during his short, thrilling career – 1957’s Singin’ to My Baby – but following his death, a steady stream of compilation LPs gathered together what recordings existed: the first of these, simply called Eddie Cochran (though marketed as Eddie Cochran Memorial Album) reached No. 9 in the British charts in October 1960, and would spend 30 weeks in the Top 40. Four other collections of his songs were put out in the 60s alone, and to date no fewer than 27 separate other compilations have been released. Just one month after his death, Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven”, reached No. 1 in the U.K. singles charts.

Eddie Cochran’s influence extended far beyond the lone studio album and four-year singles career. As well as proving the catalyst for the Lennon/McCartney partnership, “Summertime Blues” was a staple of Jimi Hendrix’s sets, Marc Bolan and Jimmy Page both cited Cochran as their musical hero (with Led Zeppelin covering several songs in their live shows) and in 1979, Sid Vicious’s riotous take on “Somethin’ Else” and “C’mon Everybody” gave the Sex Pistols a brace of Top 3 hits… and once again made Eddie Cochran a figurehead for teenage rebellion.

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During a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone, The Who’s Pete Townshend was asked to describe his favorite rock music. “‘Summertime Blues,’” he answered. “Man that’s beautiful. When I hear something like ‘Summertime Blues’… then I’m into rock ‘n’ roll, then I’m into a way of life. Into that thing about being that age and grooving to that thing that he’s talking about, which is summertime and not being able to get off work early and not being able to get out in the sunshine and not being able to borrow the car because Dad’s in a foul mood.

“All those frustrations of summer so wonderfully and so simply, so poetically, put in this incredible package, the package being rock ‘n’ roll.”


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