Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’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.