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Eddie Cochran and the Rise of British Rock, April 1960

Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an 9780195333251insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the post below he looks at April 1960 and Eddie Cochran’s influence on the Beatles. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.

One of the most remarkable developments in sixties pop culture came with the emergence of British rock ‘n’ roll. On the western side of the Atlantic, the genre had evolved from numerous sources, blending and diverging to produce a myriad of styles. British youth in the fifties gazed on the music of American performers like Little Richard, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley with a combination of wonder and envy. The first British attempts came in the resurrection of American folk blues, which musician Lonnie Donegan called “skiffle,” but which increasingly included music hall ditties. It would take American mentors to help the Brits find their mojo. Of the various candidates eligible for that status, few can rival Eddie Cochran.

Cochran was a natural: good-looking, creative, talented, and ambitious. In addition to writing some of the most memorable rock tunes of the era, including the classic, “Summer Time Blues” (with manager Jerry Capehart in 1958), he appeared in the seminal rock film of the era, The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). In that film, he sings “Twenty-flight Rock,” the core of which was written by Nelda Fairchild, one of the few women writing this kind of material at the time.

Cochran’s particular significance for the British came during his tour with Gene Vincent in 1960. Performing with them, Marty Wilde and the Wildcats boasted several future notable British musicians, including guitarists Big Jim Sullivan and Tony Belcher, bassist Liquorice Locking, and drummer Brian Bennett. The Wildcats accompanied Cochran on most of the gigs and Sullivan remembers the American as a multi-instrumentalist who could show all of them on their own instruments what he wanted them to play. These musicians all went on to prominence in the explosion of British rock and pop in the mid sixties either as session musicians or as members of Cliff Richard’s influential Shadows and carried the lessons they learned from Cochran.

On the night of 16 April 1962, as Cochran and Vincent traveled in a taxi with another American, songwriter Sharon Sheeley, the car went off the road near Bath, England. The others survived with serious injuries, but Cochran would die the next day. His death, and that of Buddy Holly the year before, set off a flurry of posthumous record releases over the next three years, whetting the British appetite for American rockabilly. Performers like Heinz (“Just Like Eddie,” 1963) tried to capture the spirit; however, as the supply of unreleased disks dwindled and the imitations became less convincing, one British band in particular stepped in to fill the void.

The nucleus of the Beatles had formed around Cochran’s recording of “Twenty-flight Rock” when Paul McCartney dazzled John Lennon in July 1957 at a church fair by knowing not only how to play the song on guitar, but also all of the words. McCartney recounted the importance of this moment in the Beatles’ video Anthology, reaffirming the significant role Cochran played in the formation of the world’s most successful rockabilly band. Indeed, Cochran’s tour of the UK and death fifty years ago may well have been the spark that helped ignite Beatlemania.

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8 Responses to “Eddie Cochran and the Rise of British Rock, April 1960”
  1. Brian Quinn says:

    The Beatles, in my opinion, ruined rock ‘n’ roll as I knew it as a fifties teenager. After they came along everything was watered down.

  2. Gordon Thompson says:

    Brian, I couldn’t disagree more. There was indeed rock ‘n’ roll around before the Beatles, and it was good; but the Beatles (and other British acts) definitely reignited that love with a new generation. Maybe their rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t your rock ‘n’ roll; but it was exciting. Eddie Cochran would have been proud.

  3. George says:

    It was April 17 1960 when Eddie died in the crash. I remember it well, living near Chippenham. R.I.P Eddie.

  4. Gordon Thompson says:

    I called Big Jim Sullivan to talk about that tour. Marty Wilde had an appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium so the band was not traveling with Cochran, Vincent, and Sheeley that night. Still, he clearly remembers the shock of hearing about it the next day. Cochran had shown British guitarists how to restring their guitars with a lighter gauge on the upper strings, allowing them to bend the notes. Thus, with Cochran’s death they felt like they had lost a mentor.

  5. TJ says:

    Eddie was hugely talented and a great loss to rock ‘n’ roll. “C’mon Everybody,” “Summertime Blues,” and “Somethin’ Else” are three of the best rock songs of the 50s and certainly Eddie’s finest.

    Here’s my tribute to Eddie. Hope you like it:
    http://www.classicpopicons.com/eddie-cochran-fifty-years-on/

  6. Peter D says:

    the British including the Beatles never did get the back-beat found in genuine American r+b and rock+Roll..(Anna/Chains/Chuck Berrys Rock+Roll/Roll over Beethoven..they were too much ON the beat..Compare early Rolling Stones ‘R+B’ to the real thing that Jimmy Reed does with a 3piece..Stones didint know how to ‘swing.’
    As in dance(jiving) the British could only muster a pale coylike ‘jiving’ they could only imitate with a pale copy of the original..
    The British did eventually get their own sound..with I’d say started Chris Farlows cover of Stones ..Out of Time..Good professional musicians +orchestration..
    Still dont get it how the Beatles so called took rock+roll back to USA…They did however take back something new with their own self-written material..Please/please me..Cant buy me Love etc..
    I’m a big Beatke fan too!

  7. Peter D says:

    apologies for grammar shifts+typos in last comment..!

  8. Digby says:

    Way off mark. Could only have been written by an American. I will bet a dollar to a dime that this American writer was not in the groove during the time that he writes off i.e. 1956 to 1960. Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were living rock and roll legends when they toured from January to April 1960. There was an hierarchy of rock and roll artists that existed in Britain at this time. The Pinnacle was Elvis. Below him, but not very far were Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. Eddie Cochran had recently arrived to join this magnitude of stars. They were la creme de la creme. Everybody else was on a lower level in respect of rock and roll status. Ray Charles, for example, while being a first magnitude artist he did not at this time have rock and roll status. Nobody in this country (Britain) during Eddie Cochran’s chart run (including posthumously) ever referred to him as a rock-a-billy artist. Bill Haley…forget it. Yes, he gave us Rock Around The Clock. Once the British audiences saw Bill in the flesh on stage it was the end. They did not look like what the audiences and the fans expected them to look like, being rock and roll singers. The Beatles were a continuation of the Edwardian/Teddy Boy image (the suits give it away) that young men adopted before rock and roll (app 1953) and became intertwined with rock and roll as these young people adopted the music. I could go on…

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