One can only speculate on the musical heights Eddie Cochran might have reached had he lived beyond the age of 21.
As it is, his all-too-brief career has left an indelible mark on rock music and rockabilly music, two forms for which he is equally revered as a talented pioneer. As a guitarist, Cochran played with strength, finesse, energy and authority, and the enduring image of him is of a handsome, nattily dressed young man with a charming smile, swaggering stance and an ever-present Gretsch® 6120 guitar. As a songwriter, he co-wrote more than 50 songs and recorded half a dozen enduring hits that perfectly—even poetically—encapsulated the experience of being a teenager. These include classics such as “C’mon Everybody,” “Twenty Flight Rock,” “Something Else,” “Sittin’ In the Balcony” and Cochran’s biggest hit, the immortal “Summertime Blues.”
Unfortunately, tragedy struck in spring 1960 during a U.K. tour when, after an April 16 performance at the Hippodrome Theatre in Bristol, England, Cochran, Gene Vincent, songwriter Sharon Sheeley (Cochran’s fiancée) and tour manager Pat Thompkins got in a hired Ford Consul to be taken to Heathrow Airport in London for a return flight to the United States. At approximately 11:50 p.m., driver George Martin lost control of the vehicle when it blew a tire on a bend in Rowden Hill, Chippenham. The car struck a concrete lamppost, and Vincent, Sheeley and Cochran were thrown from the vehicle. Martin and Thompkins emerged relatively unscathed, but Vincent, Sheeley and Cochrane were severely injured. All three were rushed to St. Martin’s Hospital in Bath, where Cochran, 21, died at 4:10 p.m. the next day—Easter Sunday. His last single release, recorded only three months earlier in January 1960, was “Three Steps to Heaven.”
Posthumously, Cochran achieved enduring icon status, with subsequent generations of rock musicians heavily influenced by his work. It is perhaps testament to his uncanny knack for zeroing in on both the joy and the angst of being a teenager that he was covered by polar opposite acts such as Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols (“Somethin’ Else”), and it’s clear that greats such as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend and many others emulated Cochran to great extent. Perhaps the best example of this came on June 6, 1957, at St. Peter’s Church Hall in Liverpool, England, when 14-year-old Paul McCartney met and impressed 16-year-old John Lennon by playing and knowing all the lyrics to “Twenty Flight Rock,” a feat that earned McCartney membership in Lennon’s skiffle band, the Quarrymen, which later became the Beatles.
Did You Know?
The Cochrans moved in 1953 to Bell Gardens, Calif., where Eddie immersed himself in his increasingly adept guitar playing. In January 1955, at age 16, he dropped out of high school to become a professional musician. Also that year, Cochran acquired the guitar he was most closely associated with, a Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins hollow-body. It was a brand-new instrument (serial number 16942) that he bought from the Bell Gardens Music Center with financial help from his parents. Cochran was very particular about his guitar sound, and he soon modified his 6120 by replacing the DeArmond DynaSonic™ neck pickup with a black Gibson® P-90, which had a warmer, jazzier sound that Cochran liked.