Are you with me: The Last Testament Of Wayne Cochran
By Jimmy McDonough
Reading time 114 Minutes
"When I put my hands on the plow, I don’t look back."
-- Wayne Cochran
Wayne Cochran. The name has been known to provoke wide eyes, open mouths and perhaps a chuckle or two. What most recall, of course, is the hair. A platinum blonde cumulo-nimbus of staggering proportions, teased into shapes bouffant and pompadour. It was outrageous, even blinding, and made his head look bigger than a pumpkin. Needless to say, the coif caught your eye.
But Cochran was so much more than an outrageous, rococo pile of follicles. Often mocked or even dismissed for his crazy antics and appearance, Wayne Cochran was a far more believable and passionate interpreter of black music than most. I’d rather listen to Wayne belt out an R&B number than, say, Jagger and his ilk. It wasn’t that Wayne possessed the greatest set of pipes, far from it. His approach felt lived-in and sincere. “I’m not trying to be a black man,” he told Esquire in 1970.
And Cochran was a pal to African-American singers in a time and place where it could get your jaw broken. “That was my cause,” Wayne told Scott Freeman. “I was going to make R&B be accepted by the masses.” Cochran was also one of the greatest showmen this country has ever produced. Equal parts JB & the Famous Flames, P.T. Barnum and carnival geek, he’d do just about anything to entertain an audience, including bleeding on them. He had a bit of con-man charm about him. “I just sell,” he told Esquire. “Hell, I could sell you something you don’t want and make you think you’re glad to have it.” Up in Wayne Cochran’s mind was a unique place to be. He was a thinker--and a member of that near-dead breed, an American original who’d been steeped in country, gospel and R&B.
Months before his death I met him in a Chili’s chain restaurant not far from his Florida home. Hovering on eighty, he was minus the big hair but as stylish as ever--his near-pencil white moustache could’ve given John Waters a run for his money. For all intents Wayne could’ve been any other senior slurping down his soup there at Chili’s. But once you got him going the fireworks began. Speaking slowly and deliberately in that gravel-pit Georgia accent, he weighed each question posed as if the fate of the world depended on his answer. He was a mesmerizing storyteller: funny as hell one minute, serious as life without parole the next. Cochran was a little on the cosmic side. “I like anything that is exciting and intense,” he’d been known to say, and he was definitely both.
For a fire still burned within Wayne. Not due to show business, but for Jesus, and that didn’t mean the flames were any less hot. He’d been pastor of his own Florida church for over thirty-five years and threw himself into matters biblical with the kind of velocity he once threw chairs through nightclub windows— the latter of which, he was quick to remind you, happened a lifetime ago. That Wayne was somebody else. “A blonde-headed freak,” as he liked to put it.
Looking back, Wayne Cochran was slightly mystified by Wayne Cochran. “He’s like another person--I can’t picture me doing that, you know. I know why I did those things, but then I wonder, why’d I do those things?”
JUST BECAUSE I’M FROM THE COUNTRY
“Part Irish, part Scotch and part Cherokee,” Talvin Wayne Cochran was born in Thomaston, Georgia on May 10, 1939. He once described his mother Millie Lee as “a funky snuff-dipping lady from down in Georgia”; Talvin Alexander “T.A.” Cochran was a mill worker and a bootlegger. “My Daddy made $25-$30 a week,” said Wayne. “We lived out in the country. Concrete-block gray $15-a-month house, didn’t have a fireplace, just a little gas heater. I was born in the bedroom. Bathroom was about twenty yards back from the woods. They built a little four-room brick house with a tin top next door and we moved into that. That one cost $20 a month.”
The Cochrans came from the wrong side of the tracks. “We were the down people from the south of town,” said Wayne. “We never got no respect.” Cochran was intent on getting some, even as a kid. He recalled writing his name on a class paper, as he looked around at all his fellow students thinking that they’d all live and die unknown, but he’d get his name in the history books one way or another. Childhood pals nicknamed Wayne “The Dreamer.”
He was a bit of a rebel. As a teen he’d seen The Last of the Mohicans and the mohawks on the Native Americans made an impression. “I thought that was so incredible…it reminded me of the Roman Gladiators. So I grew me a mohawk.” His basketball coach wasn’t crazy for the look.
“I was pretty good basketball player, and the coach said I couldn’t go on the court with a mohawk. And I didn’t wanna cut it off. We were playin’ for the championship, we were pretty good. So what I did was I went and got all the team to get mohawks. So if he didn’t let all of us play, none of us could play. How about that?” In the ninth grade, when the principal demanded he cut his non-mohawk hair, Wayne just quit. Legend has it when that same principal wanted Cochran’s band to play the prom for fifty bucks Wayne demanded $700--and got it.
THE COO, PLAIN AND NAUGHTY
The music bug bit Wayne early. As a kid he’d been exposed to country, pop and big band, but what really galvanized his mind was hearing Elvis tear through “Baby Let’s Play House” on the jukebox at a local honkytonk. “He was my idol,” said Cochran.
The introduction to black music came by way of John Richbourg’s influential radio show on WLAC out of Nashville. “I would go out and set in my Daddy’s car startin’ about 11 o’clock at night and listen to John R. on the radio. His broadcast went all through the south. I remember the first time I got to fly up there and meet him--I couldn’t believe he was a white guy. He sounded like a black guy.” This is exactly what they’d say about Cochran.
Through that car radio Wayne discovered the music he loved the best. “Rock and roll was just happy music, boogie music. Simple music. Then there was blues. And if you take blues and put it to a rock n’ roll beat, that’s called rhythm and blues. R&B was more intense. The singing’s more intense, the music’s more intense--it was just a much more intense music than rock n’ roll.” Get Wayne talking about R&B and he invariably breaks into a song or two, like “‘Two Steps from the Blues’ by Bobby Bland. “One of the greatest horn arrangements. Joe Scott Orchestra. Nobody could sing blues like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.”
Cochran was hot to make his own music. Working in the cafeteria kitchen at school Wayne “would earn a dollar a week. I’d take that dollar and get a piano lesson.” Then his father fished a guitar an uncle had thrown away out of the trash. “My Daddy got me an old guitar and put some strings on it…he supposedly played guitar and sang a little, but after I was born he never did it, so I never got to hear him play a lick. My grandparents and my parents everybody really liked music, so we’d just set around the house every Sunday, pick guitar and sing. Country music.”
In 1955 Cochran rounded some neighborhood kids together to form his first band (complete with washtub bass), the Blue Cats. The Rockin’ Capris came next. “Our first job was at the local VFW hall and we each made $12.50. My daddy never earned over $40 a week in his whole life…I knew this was the life for me.”
Like many of his peers, Cochran took inspiration from The Glenn Miller Story, a 1954 biopic starring Jimmy Stewart as the bandleader. There in the Ritz Theater in Thomaston the movie triggered something in the young Cochran mind. “The whole story was about the difficulties they had traveling in the bus and gettin’ stuck and gettin’ broke down. From that moment on, I figured I want to be a traveling band. ‘Cause I’d never been nowhere.” According to Alec Palao, by 1957 eighteen-year-old Cochran was placing ads in Billboard advertising his five-piece band: “Have uniforms, Presley-style vocalist.”
Hooking up with a nearly blind manager named Bobby Smith, Cochran cut his first record in ’59 at an Athens, Georgia TV station—“The Coo” backed with “My Little Girl” for Atlanta-based Scottie Records. What an introduction. Sexy, funny, “The Coo” is a sly, beautiful thing. “I’ll tell ya what I’m gonna do/I’m gonna make some mad love to you,” intones hepcat Cochran over a lazy tempo (a young Ray “The Streak” Stevens provides keyboard).
“That song almost did me in,” Cochran recalled. “You remember Bill Doggett had a song called ‘Honky Tonk’? I loved that. I wanted to record that, but it was instrumental. So I took ‘Honky Tonk’ and talked over it, and that was ‘The Coo’--we ended up calling it ‘The Coo’ because lovebirds coo. It was supposedly so vulgar some radio stations banned it.” The original version was “The Naughty Coo”—Wayne dropped the “naughty,” “nibble on my ear” became “whisper in my ear,” and the tempo got even slower.
His very first record, Wayne proceeded to cover himself by releasing the more suggestive earlier version under an alias. “We put ‘The Naughty Coo’ out under the name The Great Sebastian. You know where that comes from? The Greatest Show on Earth. The trapeze guy was the Great Sebastian.” Nearby Macon, Georgia, was where the action was and Cochran moved there. Macon would be the springboard for not only him, but Little Richard, James Brown and Otis Redding, even though “there were no nightclubs that had entertainment. They only had dance bands. And we all four made it, I don’t know how.”
It’s what you don’t sing
IT’S WHAT YOU DON’T SING
They call me white soul, blue-eyed soul, but that’s a lot of horseshit. Soul ain’t got no color. Soul is just being honest.
Wayne immersed himself in local R&B. Said Cochran in an early interview, “I’d go to the Negro section of town and visit their teenage haunts, even though they couldn’t come to ours. This didn’t sit too well with some of my school friends…some even called me nigger lover.” When I asked Wayne anybody else around him was doing this, he responded, “Are you kidding? You could get hung!” He was even threatened by the local Ku Klux Klan. But his critics soon relented. “They saw I wasn’t going to stop.”
One night Wayne moseyed into the Club 15 in Gray, Georgia, right outside of Macon, to see the house band. “Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers and I were good friends, and they were big names in Macon. He did all the tricks--going down to the floor with the guitar, breakin’ it in half. Otis Redding was just a singer with the band. And he did a song done by Peggy Lee--‘Fever.’ And I heard that and went, ‘My GOD! That’s a greatest song I ever heard. I gotta do that.’
“Rock n’ roll uses all major chords, blues is all minors. I didn’t know anything about a minor. So I went back and started singing that song ‘Fever.’ And when you sing that song, all of a sudden you want to hear horns. And so my hankering for that was growing. ‘Fever’ got me into singing a blues-type thing. Before I did just rock n’ roll.”
Wayne and Otis got to be friends. “I had a yellow Buick convertible with black interior, and he’d come by and borrow that car and keep it two or three days! He’d just keep my car.” With Redding 6’1” and Cochran an inch taller, they must have been a conspicuous sight as they kicked around Macon. The pair would go to the local Dairy Queen and Cochran would buy a cone. When Redding tried to get his, he was instructed to go around back. Cochran insisted they sell the cone to him so he could just hand it to Otis without any back-door humiliation. “I was ready to burn that place down,” Wayne told Scott Freeman. “A white guy could sit beside you, he’d been drunk for three days and smelled like a brewery…and it was all right because he was white. I’d sit there and think, ‘Something is bad wrong here.’”
Bad wrong even amongst Wayne’s own kin. “To give you the attitude of the South at the time: Otis would come out in the country to the house on Sunday, because all my family would come sit around and play guitars and sing. Otis would come play guitars and sing with us. He was the sweetest guy. So one day my mama---now, my mama thought she was complimentin’ him--she said, ‘Baby you know Otis is such a nice guy. It’s a pity he was born a nigger.” And I said, ‘Mama, you can’t ever—ever--say that word again.’ Those were strange days.”
Cochran played bass on Redding’s first single (the crazed “Shout Bamalama” on Bobby Smith’s Confederate Records) and Wayne and Otis helped build a studio for Smith. The pair even shared a stage dueting together on “Shout” during a frenzied battle of the bands in east Macon.
Redding revealed a few tricks to Wayne. “Otis had a theory that you could take any word and worry it and it would sound blues--he wrote a song about that, believe it or not, called ‘Fa-Fa.’” As Cochran explained, he belted out a few lines of Redding’s 1966 classic “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” remembering every word. “That’s what that song was about—worryin’ the words. I always said R & B is not what you sing, it’s what you don’t sing, and where you don’t sing it. The holes you left.”
Cochran was later amazed to find out that he had in turn influenced Redding. “Otis had his big horn band and I had one, doin’ R&B here in Florida. Otis would fly down every now and then--he liked the way our band was choreographed, I did the choreographin’ for the horn lines in our band. So he’d come down, watch it, go back and teach his band what we were doin’. Once he come down here, I went to see him, we sat and talked, and he said, ‘I hope you won’t be upset by this, but I just had an interview with Life magazine and I told them you were my hero and that you were my model for music.’ It just sorta took me aback, actually, because I thought I was copyin’ him.”
Cochran would remain close to Otis until the end of his life. Redding had been planning to visit Wayne when he died in a plane crash. Cochran got emotional as he recalled getting the news. “I got in the car that night to go to the bar to go do my show, and as I pull out of the driveway the announcer says, ‘Otis Redding was killed this afternoon.’ I thought he was joking. I said, ‘I can’t believe he would do a stupid thing like that. That ain’t funny.’ Two or three minutes later he said, ‘This afternoon Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash.’
“My whole world fell apart. That was my closest friend. I had to pull over and just sit there, I couldn’t drive. That was a horrible night. I went over to the bar and we canceled all the shows.”
MAN WITH AN OCELOT
Even in the beginning, Cochran kicked the crowd’s ass. “He was so close to James Brown that it wasn’t real,” said Bobby Smith to Scott Freeman. “He would do virtually anything to get an audience’s attention.” But his records at the time were somewhat tame. Cochran continued to put out rock n’ roll singles on minor labels, the most significant being “Last Kiss,” a song Wayne wrote and first recorded in 1961 for the tiny Gala Records.
A striking example of that morbid minor genre of teen death records (the original single recording begins with tasteless car crash effects), Cochran was inspired to write it by a stretch of highway near his hometown notorious for its fatalities. "It was horrible... So I said, 'I'm gonna write a song about a car wreck.' "
Cochran did just that in the mid-fifties, but he claimed he couldn’t figure out how to complete the song until he heard about the death of Jeanette Clark, a local girl who’d died in an auto accident while on her first date. The tragedy moved him to finish “Last Kiss.” "She's gone to heaven, so I've got to be good / So I can see my baby when I leave this world," croons Wayne, who aptly described the number as "a '50s song in the '60s."(1)
The song was not a huge hit—at least for Wayne. His manager Bobby Smith had been hired by King Records, and he got them to sign Cochran and rerelease “Last Kiss” as his second single. “King was R&B,” said Wayne.” So I realized it wasn’t going to sell on that label. They put it out …nothin’. But then after it had been out 4 or 5 weeks, there was a guy in Odessa, Texas, who was recording an album. He would listen to the radio on the way to the studio back then, and that was the only city in America where ‘Last Kiss’ played. It was number 1. And this guy J. Frank Wilson loved that song. So he went in the studio and recorded it note for note. It shot right to the top of the charts.”
This led to a showdown with the gruff boss of King Records, cigar-chomping Syd Nathan. “I went into Syd Nathan’s office and I said, ‘Syd, why didn’t my song ‘Last Kiss’ sell?’ And he said, ‘Because it was no damn good.’ And I laid the Billboard chart on his desk and I said, ‘Then how is it #2 in the nation this week?’ He didn’t say a word. So I got my vengeance.” Cochran said he got little else out of it at the time, besides a new set of wheels. But “Last Kiss” would hit the charts again—first in the mid-seventies by way of a Canadian band called Wednesday and then in the nineties when Pearl Jam resurrected the oldie to add their lugubrious touch. That twist of fate made Wayne a pile of dough.
James Brown was another big influence. They were friends, but not nearly as close as he and Otis. “James had already left town and made it. Me and Otis used to make fun of James because we were jealous of him. But actually I idolized James.” Around 1964 Cochran attended a rehearsal of Brown’s and was so knocked out by his brand-new piece of landmark funk “Out of Sight” he not only started performing the song, he wore his (still black) hair in a similarly stylish pompadour--and went as far as recreating Brown’s famous stage routine, down to ripping a cape off and having it thrown back over on him.
“James and I did a show together one day,” Cochran recalled, understandably proud of such a cataclysmic event. “It was at a baseball field, the stage was where the pitcher’s mound is. At the time I had an ocelot. I loved that ocelot. Name was Tara. And I had an outfit made of black satin with an ocelot lining--it was fake, but it looked like real ocelot.
“They introduced me and I come onstage with my ocelot. Everything was silent. I put him down, pointed to the dugout and Tara ran back there. People went nuts. James Brown was on stage with me when I did that. We did a couple songs of his that we danced and sung together. We called it ‘Swap Eights’ – ‘you do eight bars and I’ll do eight bars.’ and I actually danced with James Brown doing James Brown steps. That was such a thrill for me.”
When it comes to influences, Cochran listed these: “James Brown and his dancing, Otis Redding and his stomp, Joe Tex and his mike tricks. And Johnny Cash--I loved Johnny Cash, so there was a little of that in my voice. I was imitating him, but it didn’t sound nothing like him. It was just a combination of people that I idolized. And that became Wayne Cochran.”
THE COCHRAN CIRCUIT RIDERS
Next came the horn section. “James and Otis are the ones that got me into horns. ‘Out of Sight’—‘You got your high-heeled sneakers on’—and ‘Mr. Pitiful,’ the first song that Otis recorded that had horns in it. The horn line was bump bump daaa, bump bum daa. That got me to wantin’ horns.” Around the same time a club owner in Shreveport suggested Cochran expand the band. “I had a four piece rhythm section plus myself. He really liked us and wanted me to add horns to the band. He told me about a group down in Baton Rouge that had horns called the Dixie Crystals, so I drove down there and believe it or not, I hired about three or four people out of the band that day. And that was the beginning of our horn section.
“Back then the only horns you’d have is maybe a four-piece rhythm section with a saxophone. Horn players like to play with horn sections. They love big bands. And they didn’t want to play with a rock n roll singer, ‘cause they’d make fun of you. But the horn players would play with me for almost nothin’ to get to play with a horn section--nobody else had one. So they played real cheap.
“And I kept addin’ horns--three saxes. I added trumpet. Then I added two trumpets, so I had a sax section and a trumpet section. I added another trumpet, so I had three and three. Then I added a trombone--for a bottom for the trumpets. Then I added another trombone. So I wound up with a sax section, trumpet section, trombone section.
“I had a kid with me named Tony Klatka that I hired right out of Berklee. And he started writing arrangements. I love melodies, so if he wrote a real jazzed-up thing I wouldn’t like it. I said, ‘No, you gotta stay with the melody. I’m an old hillbilly--if it ain’t got a melody line, it ain’t a song.’ He started writing arrangements and we started playing these big band arrangements, and they turned out to be great arrangements, man. There was a big song Horace Silver had that we did first, just a knocked-out arrangement.
“Jackie Gleason’s band had a song called ‘Shangri-La.’ Big band, big song. And the band learned that song. People were amazed, because people in nightclubs at the time had never heard horns. That was just for big jazz bands like Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, not in a rock n’ roll club. We’d play ‘Shangri-La’ and people would go nuts.”
Cochran dubbed his band the C.C. Riders—and the inspiration was not the Chuck Willis hit of the same name, as many assume. “I’d go in and do a gig, I was new, I’d do a great job, and there would be eight or ten club owners who stayed in touch with each other – ‘Hey, what acts you got? Are they any good? Can I get 'em?’ So they got to calling about me--What about this guy, should I bring him in? And the guy would say, ‘Yeah!’
“So I’d work that whole circuit, five or six clubs. And then somebody from another area would call, and they’d be another circuit. And so I got to where I was working circuits like the old circuit preachers in the old days who would do circuits of churches in different areas of the nation. That’s where I got the name: Cochran Circuit Riders. It all just unfolded, man, you know? I didn’t plan my career. I just did what I loved doing, and it worked.”
I was a blonde-haired freak
I WAS A BLONDE-HAIRED FREAK
I never lacked for attention…all I had to do was put on some lilac outfit with a deep purple velvet cape, do my hair up, tint it lilac, and go to some truck stop on a Saturday night.
The hair arrived in Muncie, Indiana. Oddly enough the inspiration came by way a pair of blues-playing albino brothers from Texas. Then just teenagers, Johnny and Edgar Winter were playing in an R&B band called It and Them at some joint called Sak’s Boom-Boom Room in Bossier City, Louisiana around ’65 or so. When Wayne walked in and got a load of those white, white Winters brothers dressed all in black sporting nearly translucent hair, something clicked in the Cochran mind. When the lights on stage switched hue, “it changed the color of their hair.” Wayne wanted a dye job. That night.
This would not happen until he and the Riders hit Muncie, Indiana. They were playing Woodbury’s Supper Club and limping through the gig. The owner told them if things didn’t improve by the end of the week they were out the door. It was at this moment Cochran located a local hairdresser willing to experiment on Cochran’s cranium—Joe Gibbons. He dyed and re-dyed Cochran’s black hair—already grown into a pompadour in tribute to J.B.—until it was “a pinkish strawberry color.”
Now the club owner was irate. Either Wayne changed his hair back to a human color or they were out. Desperate, Cochran began scheming and dreaming. Dressing up the Riders in spanking-new suits he’d had made for them (bolero-style jackets over flashy cummerbunds), Wayne donned a long black satin cape with red velvet lining, fluffed up his pink pomp and hustled everybody over to a local restaurant, the Fox’s Den. And there began a little one-act play for the diners crafty Cochran had orchestrated in his mind.
Joe the hairdresser went in first. Standing in front of a dining room full of soon-to-be dumbfounded patrons, he clapped his hands and the Riders filed in, lining up on either side. Then the caped Cochran made his regal entrance. Wayne made his way to the table, the band trailing behind. As they stood at attention, Don removed the Cochran cape, and Wayne sat. Gibbons then clapped again, signaling to the band that they, too, had permission to sit.
Wayne had scrounged just enough money to buy a meal for himself and salads for the band. But not Joe. So it was explained to the waiter taking their order that Gibbons “was my food taster. In case of poison,” Cochran told Scott Freeman. “You could just hear the forks dropping in that restaurant.” At the end of the meal, Joe clapped once more, the band formed lines at the door and Cochran made his exit. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have just had dinner with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders,” Don intoned. “He’ll be appearing tonight at the Woodbury Supper Club.” When they got to the club that night there was a line. And they would be held over three weeks.
The Cadillac that was Cochran now had fins. The hair was locked in place. And continued to expand. Practically a separate member of the band, it required its own technician. The ’do took an hour to prepare, and there was an elaborate schedule of setting, dying, conditioning, bleaching. For some it’s the only thing they saw—“the hair,” in awe, in shock, in disbelief.
“Like a depraved Charlie Rich,” said one reviewer. “Elvis Presley in one of Zsa-Zsa Gabor’s wigs,” exclaimed a Vegas paper. Many found it ridiculous, but Wayne didn’t flinch. “I want to make extra friends out of the people who start off by saying I’m disgusting,” he said in 1970. When I asked Cochran if he ever felt people concentrated too much on the coif he said, “Well, they did that all the time, but I realized the hair was like a walkin’ billboard. So if it wasn’t for the hair, they would have never heard the music anyhow.”
I BUST UP STUFF
"My role is to excite and arouse the audience."
At the same time Cochran’s live show was evolving. No longer did Cochran travel in a baby-blue Caddy with the band trailing behind in a leaky hearse. There was a bus, albeit used. “It was an old Flxible, had no battery. Paid $300 for the bus, so I couldn't afford the battery. Believe it or not, we’d have to park it where we could push it off and crank it, every time.” The C. C. Riders had morphed from a dance band to a show band—one that demanded you watch as well as listen. “We'd be out there in the audience, standing on tables,” he told John Floyd. “We'd make the whole room part of the show. We'd play at full volume; it was like this wall of sound, and there was never a stop between songs. We'd write horn interludes to take you from one song to the next. Once it would start, the show literally never stopped. You couldn't breathe until the show was over.”
The set would finish with “Shout” by the Isley Brothers. “I don’t know why I did this, but one night the dance floor was full, and I went out on the floor and started singing, “Shout, shout, shout.” A caped Cochran dropped to his knees, screaming and definitely shouting as the band formed a circle around him on the dance floor. “People quit dancing and gathered around to watch. And it worked.”
The reasons for that were not only musical. It was Wayne himself. What he might do onstage—or to it. Cochran had raised the ante in another way back in that Muncie club. Out of nowhere during one set Wayne threw a chair through the window and the crowd went wild. From there on in it was demolition time. Why the chair, Wayne was asked decades later by David Letterman. The inspiration: bar fights in old movies. “I’ve always loved westerns…Randolph Scott!”
Something primal had been unleashed within Wayne that night at Woodbury’s. Playing the Barn, the Miami club that would be his home for years, he threw a beer glass through a wall-length mirror. “I was just out of the country,” reasoned Wayne. “I was being myself.” At Canada club he demolished a $400 dollar statue, two mics, the stage curtains and seven chairs. During a stay at the Happy Medium in Chicago he demolished an $1800 stained glass window. “The energy came off him in waves, with an air of dangerous unpredictability,” wrote Andy Schwartz, describing the first time he saw Cochran. “When the singer suddenly and deliberately shattered a cocktail glass on the floor, I thought, ‘Oh my god, what is this guy gonna do NEXT??’”
Cochran’s antics provided great copy for countless reviewers. “As the band vamps, Wayne goes clear to the rear of the room, walks behind the bar and begins to chug down some of the profits,” wrote John Huddy, who watched as the performer gathered up an armload of liquor, then tossed “stacks of napkins” at the audience. The review reads like a live CNN feed from some showbiz DMZ zone. Wayne “pours booze into glasses, on people.” One bottle empty, “Wayne casually flips it over his shoulder. Smash!” He then “sits down and has a drink with some chick.” For a finale, Cochran “rips down the stage curtain” and “pours what’s left of the booze on the stage.”
A towering presence onstage, Wayne was fond of reaching up and pulling down hunks of the ceiling tile. How that started was due to the fact Cochran played “show bars” where strippers and go-go girls were part of the lineup. “Behind the bar would be a little stage. And they’d get up there and strip. This club hired me with my big band to play this show bar, and we were just jammed up there. We packed that place, and of course I wanted to go out in the audience, but the bar was in the way. I got all excited one night and I figured, ‘That’s it, I’m going out there.’
“And I stepped out on the bar to jump into the audience. When I stood up, my head hit the ceiling, and it messed my hair up. I just automatically took my fist and busted the ceiling out. And the crowd went wild. They went nuts! And I did it the next time, and the same thing happened. So it became part of the show. Again, it was an accident. Divine providence.”
At the Barn one night while doing the ceiling trick he cut his arm. Wayne bled over the audience. “To me it was beautiful, that blood all over the tables. I was almost laughing,” he told Esquire reporter Roy Bongartz in 1970. Wayne showed me a faded scar on his forearm. “I was just spillin’ blood--the women, were they faintin’! I thought ‘What greater way to die than onstage performin’!’ So I just kept singin’. Finally the manager shut the show down. I went in the back, they called a doctor.”
Wayne dragged the audience into the act. At the Sherman House in Chicago he cajoled the crowd into tossing trays of water towards the ceiling. “Sort of rare to see in a conservative dining room,” mused a philosophical Wayne. Elsewhere he’d take the audience out in the street to do the can-can.
Bandleader Charlie Brent painted a vivid picture of Cochran running amok in the audience one night. As the band played a long instrumental version of a Betty Wright hit, Cochran finally ran out of the club to “climb up a telephone pole and start barking at the moon, with the horns still playing the riff to ‘Cleanup Woman,’” Brent recalled to Bill Milkowski. “This was some seriously crazy motherfucker.” (When I asked Wayne about this incident he responded in a blasé fashion. “Well, I don’t remember howling at the moon, but I climbed the flagpole…Things happen.”)
Cochran kept this crazy behavior up for years, although few in the snooty rock world were paying attention. Reviewer Richard Cromelin, attending a wild Los Angeles seventies show, declared that Cochran behaved “like the Iggy Pop of the Lawrence Welk generation.” Cromelin seemed rather dumbfounded by the performance. “In the end he’s flat on his belly in the aisles, thrashing about like a beached whale, screaming bloody murder as the band deploys around the room, aiming trumpets and saxophones into helpless customers’ ears.”
There was something in this supercharged insanity that an audience related to. When you bought a ticket to see Wayne you bought a trip to another dimension. He rapped, he danced, he demolished…Cochran did whatever entered his mind. Wayne might’ve seemed like a buffoon at the time, but looking back he seems more real than many of his contemporaries. “Cool folks don’t have fun, only fools do,” was his mantra to the crowd.
Absurd as it all was, he took on his mission with the grave seriousness of an astronaut taking off for worlds unknown. “I used to get mad. People would say, ‘Man it’s a great show. One night there was a guy with Jackie Gleason at the bar who said, ‘Man, that was a great show.’ And that was such an insult. I said, ‘Listen, don’t ever say I had a great show. It wasn’t A SHOW. It was real.’”
THIN WILD MERCURY SOUND
In 1965 Wayne landed at Smash/Mercury. There he would record three singles that are his finest work. First and best was a cover of Bob & Earl’s R&B hit “Harlem Shuffle,” maybe my favorite Cochran of all. A sinister, sultry record recorded an altitude where the air is thin, it moves like a monkee through the night trees. Listen to the horns, the female chorus at the end (“Whooooooo!”), not to mention the shriek Cochran opens with. He grimaced a bit when I brought it up. “I wish I hadn’t done that scream, ‘cause it kept it from being played. They didn’t play that kinda stuff on the radio…the problem was, everybody thought I was black, so it got big on black radio.”
“Rumors are going around that Wayne Cochran and his C. C. Riders, the hip blue-eyed soul brothers, are really not white at all,” wrote African-American reporter Lee Ivory for the Negro Press International. “They are saying somebody has done a good makeup job on the fellas. It’s fantastic, though, the way they are invading Negro clubs.” Invade they did, as Cochran moved from playing what he called “the white vaudeville circuit” to the big R&B theaters of the time: the Howard in Washington, DC, the Regal in Chicago and the crown jewel of them all, the Apollo in Harlem. “We got there to rehearse on a Wednesday night. And the owner at the Apollo come down, and he goes, ‘Where’s Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders?’ I go, ‘That’s us.’ He said, ‘Then I gotta cancel this. You can’t go on stage in the Apollo Theater with an all-white band. They’ll kill you!’
“I thought it was the greatest compliment of my life. Because James Brown had recorded Live at the Apollo. So Apollo Theater to me was like Carnegie Hall. Boy, you weren’t gonna keep me from playing this place. So I insisted that I go on. The Apollo seated eleven hundred, it was the smallest of the theaters. So you had to do five shows a day, back to back.
“The first three days, I would end the show, there was silence. Not a word. And so the owner come down to the dressing room after the third day and I said, ‘Hey man, I gotta stop this gig.’ He said, ‘What do you mean, man--you’re winnin’!’ I said, ‘What do you mean I’m winning, all they gotta do is shoot me!’ He said, ‘No, they haven’t said a word--that means they haven’t decided yet, they’re confused.’
“I went out the next show and there was a little girl about eight years old sitting down front. It was in the afternoon, so it was a matinee. And I would walk across the front of the stage doing a song called ‘No Rest for the Wicked’ that I’d written. When I walked across the front she stood up, and you could see her head in the spotlight. She said, ‘Why don’t you go home, hillbilly?’
“And I said--it was just an instant response—‘Honey, I got a story to tell, you can listen if you want.’ And up in the balcony some black woman hollered, ‘Tell your story honey, we listening.’ The whole crowd erupted. And I left with a standin’ ovation. That little girl broke the ice for me.
“When I came onstage I had on a silver lamé suit with a silver lamé cape with gold velvet linin’. And I had my shoes covered in silver lamé. And I went on doing James Brown’s thing. And they took a picture of me and put it in Jet magazine and titled it “A Star Is Born.” I could have quit right then. I’d made it.”
Whose barn? What barn? My barn
WHOSE BARN? WHAT BARN? MY BARN
In 1966, Cochran started playing at the Barn, a Miami Beach club that became his home base for the next five years. “At that point we had a 10-piece band. I had the white hair…we got to be one of the biggest draws on Miami Beach.” Vacationers would come see the band, then “go back home and tell everybody about us. So the first time I went to Chicago, the place was packed.” Tom Jones came. Sinatra.
There was one local big-shot Cochran couldn’t entice into the Barn: Jackie Gleason. A rotund, boozy arbiter of taste in America at the time, Gleason hosted a weekly hit variety show. “Jackie Gleason would never come see a local act. I’d send him an invitation, he wouldn’t come. I sent him everything, he wouldn’t come. So I sent him 10 red roses, one white rose, and one daisy--my manager at the time was named Walt Daisy.
“I guess this was so curious, the next time I called and invited Gleason, he showed up! And he just fell in love with the show, and he became like a daddy to me. Gleason started coming all the time. If you want to know what he drank in his cup, it was J&B scotch. He would come every Friday night after taping the show Friday afternoon, and he’d bring all the stars with him. He would sit at a table right in front of the stage. And we’d have him a bottle of J&B scotch and a coffee cup sitting there.”
Gleason had a strange pet name for Cochran: Clara Bow, but not because of the silent film legend. “There was a blond-headed singer, I can’t remember her name. And she went bare-footed. Her nickname was Clara Bow. Gleason would call me Clara Bow. … And he would tell me, ‘Alright Cochran, you gotta come out here one night bare footed. You a Clara Bow.’ I never did do that.
“Gleason did the rare thing--he would go to his rehearsals. Now I did blues songs, and those are the songs he loved.” Cochran was planning on doing Bobby Bland’s “Two Steps From The Blues.” “I went to rehearsal, and they said, ‘No, you have to do something up-tempo on television.’ So that’s why I chose an up-tempo song to do. And I was sitting with Gleason at rehearsal one day and he said, ‘Why are you doing this song? Why don’t you do one of them blues songs? And I said, ‘They won’t let me!’ Gleason just blew his top.”
Before Cochran’s debut on the show, Jackie lit a cigarette, took a drag and introduced “the wildest guy I’ve ever seen in my life”: Wayne Cochran, dressed in a bright yellow suit, a “nightclub” audience sitting before him, belting out a thunderous version of his next (and very uptempo) Mercury single, “Get Down With It,” plus a bit of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” thrown in to up things a notch.
Cochran would credit his two appearances on the Gleason show in December 1968 and February 1969 for putting him over the top. Another song he wound up doing on the show went on to become his signature number—“Goin’ Back to Miami.” “I wrote that song specifically for that show. I had certain songs, I did certain moves. I didn’t do them all in one song. But all those moves is what I was known for.
“So I figured, ‘I gotta write a song and put all them moves in it.’ And that’s when I wrote ‘Goin’ Back to Miami.’ I wrote a song just so I could do those dance moves, and I decided I’d make it about Miami. Because I’d always go out traveling, and I’d go back to Miami, go back to my girl. That was true. So I wrote a song to fit what I did. That’s why those big punches are in there - ba ba, ba ba ba. Ba ba, ba ba ba. To get that big band sound. And you know that song is probably my most requested song in my whole career, but when I recorded it and put it out, it never sold. But it was covered by five or six different other artists, so altogether it was a good seller.”
BIG CITY WOMAN
The woman that Wayne kept returning to in Miami would turn out to be his second wife, and the love of his life. “Monica used to come to the Barn to see me. I thought she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. But she was a callgirl. Her name was really Linda Diane Power. She hated the name Linda. There was a movie out called The Carpetbaggers. In that movie there’s a woman named Monica. She thought that was the most beautiful name, so she adopted that name as one of her names as a hooker and later on had it legally changed.
“Monica wasn’t dating musicians, she didn’t need that hang-up in her life. She liked singers like Frank Sinatra, pop singers, big band, jazz--she didn’t like rock and roll…but she got to like it dancing to rock and roll, so she developed a love for it.
“I kept pursuing her and perusing her. Monica finally gave me a date. And I finally convinced her that I really loved her and we got married. She quit that business and she became a great wife and mother and grandmother and was incredibly wise. My secretary just found our first marriage license [at one point they split up, but remarried—Editor] and we were married 46 years. I wrote a song that’s about Monica, and it’s her singing harmony on it with me—‘When My Baby Cries.’ That’s her. Great voice, huh? She had an incredible voice, I could never get her to sing.” Wayne broke into “When My Baby Cries” as he talked. “The love of a woman has made a man, made a man out of me. …”
“When My Baby Cries” was the flip of Cochran’s first single for Chess in 1967. By now Cochran’s hair was so infamous his first album was just a white-on-black silhouette of the pompadour. The Chicago blues/R&B label should’ve been a natural fit for Wayne, with sessions taking place at the Muscle Shoals FAME studios, but the label hedged their bets by saddling Cochran with overwrought blues covers and sludgy, meekly psychedelic production (although that rococo rumpus room of a song known as “Up In My Mind” is something to savor).
Wayne would forever remain hitless (he’d jump from Chess back to King then to Epic in the next few years), but he felt it didn’t matter, as his live show had lines around the block to see “fifteen experts in excitement,” as he called his outfit. Money was rolling in. Cochran formed a movie company, Bread and Butter, that he promised would specialize in “ethnic films.” “The ghettos of America are loaded with talent and I have seen too many talented youngsters without an opportunity for a career, a situation I would like to change,” he told Variety. Wayne even contemplated a future run for Governor of Georgia. “I want to campaign from the back of a big white wagon with gold wheels drawn by six white horses. Why shouldn’t the people see something pretty?”
The Cochran wardrobe had grown to 150 suits--many of them extravagant wonders designed by Nudie the Tailor, like a fifty-pound suit with cut-glass red roses—and 30 pairs of shoes. Around his neck, in three shades of gold, Cochran wore a pork-chop necklace in honor of his Daddy telling him not to forget the days when a piece of meat on the table was a big deal. “You gotta keep humble in show business,” said Wayne.
VIVA LAS VEGAS
Vegas and Cochran: a logical progression. Hell, he looked like a casino. Wayne and the Riders landed at the Flamingo Hotel. Stars came. He palled around with Ann-Margaret and Evel Knievel. Opened for Elvis at the Hilton. Cochran maintained he upped Presley’s style when he gifted him a couple of extravagant Nudie suits--and when Wayne switched to jumpsuits, the King soon followed. “I got to meet him and be friends with him,” said Cochran, still in awe. One day Presley minion Red West gave him a gift from Elvis—a TCB (Takin’ Care of Business) necklace. Wayne figured it was just the cheap version he sold at his shows, but decades later he took it to a jeweler who informed him it was solid gold. “I felt so special, that he gave me a real gold one that he only gave to special friends,” he said, lifting it from his neck to show me. “Isn’t that great?”
Not forgetting his pledge to spread the R&B gospel, Cochran prodded Vegas hotels to hire Sam & Dave and Ike & Tina Turner. Ike & Tina were on the bill with Wayne supporting Elvis, and Ike got the idea for the biggest hit of their career from watching Cochran perform it first.
Wayne: “You always end a show with the big hurrah, and my big show-ending song back then was ‘Proud Mary.’ Got everybody to sing along and had the horns go out in the audience and blow…Ike & Tina didn’t do ‘Proud Mary.’ But they saw the response it got--it had become such a show stopper for us—so Ike went in the studio, rearranged it and recorded ‘Proud Mary.’ Tina is a great woman, sweet person. She was a hard-working woman. He abused her terribly. Ike was just a mean guy.”
Little Richard was another luminary who came to Vegas shows. “I remember the first time I met him--I thought he was super strange. I was playing at the Flamingo and Richard would come in with his group, sit right down front. And he always wore these female-lookin’ clothes, and I’m thinking, this guy is out of his mind. But I got to know him, and he was really a sweet guy. Smart guy, too. Richard wasn’t no dummy.”
As far as vocalists went, one surpassed them all in Cochran’s mind. “The greatest singer is Barbra Streisand. She come to see me in Vegas. When she played Caesar’s Palace, they put just one name on the marquee: Barbra. You had to be famous enough to have just one name. Everybody knew who that was.
“I went to see her show opening night. All the entertainers were invited for free opening night. And I sat right by Lana Turner, who I think is probably the prettiest woman who ever lived. And Barbara’s sitting on a stool, with like a thirty-piece orchestra, and she’s singin’, hitting this incredible high note that you could hear over the whole orchestra. It was loud. It was held. And finally the orchestra all quit playing and the note was still there. Oh, that woman could sing. I like talent, I don’t care what you’re singing.” (To writer John Capouya, Cochran professed similar admiration for Donna Summer and KC and the Sunshine Band, and got annoyed over the fact that other players put them down. “Musicians don’t like anything popular.”)
GET YOUR MOTOR RUNNIN’
Prodded by Monica to take a break from the nightlife, Cochran got into a new bag in Vegas. Motorcycles. This bled into his music, which morphed into a sort of biker funk. The cover of his memorably-titled 1970 King album Alive and Well…and Living in a Bitch of a World was festooned with pictures of Wayne astride his Harley (the back cover featured a rear-view shot of a shirtless Cochran, hair teased high and love handles on display, puttering down the highway to Vegas on his hog). “I’m diggin’ the scene/On my machine,” wailed Wayne. There was even an accompanying collection of lugubrious instrumentals by the C. C. Riders, High and Ridin’.
It should be said being a C.C. Rider was no walk in the park. The show was demanding, Cochran was a taskmaster (a sign on his bus stated “I Pay, I Say”) and he spend an interminable time touring. “We were a hard-working band. I did 269 one-nighters in a row without a day off.” He claimed two band members were deposited at the Mayo Clinic after cracking up out on the road.
Bass wunderkind Jaco Pastorius was a C.C. Rider briefly. “He was a great bass player but he was a terrible musician, ‘cause a musician fits within the band. Pastorius never did. He played what he wanted to play and everybody had to play with him. You had to follow him or he’d walk all over you. He was a great bass player. I never known a bass player who could do the things he did.
“I remember how he came up with the first fretless bass. An electric bass has frets--it’s by the frets you can determine where the note is. And he didn’t like the way the frets sounded, because you could hear the string against the metal. So one night he decided to pull all his frets out. And he come on the bus that morning and said, ‘Hey Wayne, look at my bass.’ He pulled all the frets out! I said, ‘How you gonna know where to play?’ He said, ‘I dunno.’ And that was the world’s first fretless bass.”
I asked Cochran about a story his ex-bandleader Charlie Brent told: Pastorius refused to wear a tux in the show so Brent got him an extra-long guitar chord so he could play hidden offstage. “That’s not true,” said Cochran. “He wouldn’t wear a tux ‘cause he would only wear cotton against his skin. So I called his bluff--I went and had him a tux made out of corduroy. And he wore it, grudgingly. Because corduroy is pure cotton. So I fixed that situation. Jaco Pastorius was a phenomenon we’ll probably never see again. But he was a pain in the neck.”
A friend of mine is a friend of ours
A FRIEND OF MINE IS A FRIEND OF OURS
Did Wayne run into any mobsters in Sin City, USA? He laughed. “Oh my Lord, I knew ‘em all.” He’d encountered them first back in the Sunshine State. “They used to always come see me, they loved good entertainment. The heads of the five cities would all come to Miami to vacation, and they’d come out to see me.
“Right when I started datin’ my wife Monica, a car tried to run me down in the parking lot one night. I ducked behind the building and this car skimmed the side of it. A few nights later I left the bar to go home, friends of mine saw a car pull in after me. The driver was layin’ in the front seat with a shotgun.
“And then we were walkin’ from the Barn across the bridge over to Tony Roma’s, and this silver 1964 Cadillac Coupe de Ville pulled over on the bridge, and a guy got out and put a rifle on top of the car. And we jumped off the bridge. And he fired two or three shots and drove off.
“I went to the police chief and he said, ‘Wayne, word is out on the street there’s a contract on you. And if there is, there ain’t nothing I can do about it.’ I figured maybe Monica was the reason, she was a call girl then. That’s what the police chief thought. So I sent her to Georgia, I didn’t want her to get hurt down here. I had to hide out. In an empty, unfinished apartment building. But I still went on stage every night. In fact, I was so afraid they was gonna shoot me, I had two drummers sitting right behind me, and I had them sit off to the side so if someone shot me and missed, it wouldn’t hit one of them. But I kept doin’ the shows.
“Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and I said, ‘I can’t take this. If they want me, tell them where I’m at. Let’s get it over with.’ This was at the time when they found Mia Farrow on the beach beat up, and she was Sinatra’s girlfriend at the time. [We found nothing backing up Cochran’s allegations regarding an assault on Farrow at the time—Editor.] So they all came to South Florida, to Jilly Rizzo’s South on 79th Street. They were gonna investigate until they found out who did this, because they was gonna take ‘em out. And my manager went to see one of these guys--Joe Fettuccine, I believe it was—my manager says, ‘Listen, Wayne is tired, he can’t hide no more, he wants me to tell you where he’s at so you can get it over with.’
“He said, ‘What do you mean? We love Wayne like a son, we come to see him all the time. It wasn’t us.’ So he said, ‘We need to find out who is after Wayne and stop this.’ So they dropped the whole Frank Sinatra investigation and started to find out who’s trying to kill me. And they put two hit men used to come see me all the time on it: Jimmy Grogan and Bobby Moore.
“Tommy A., who was the lieutenant general of the mob in North Bay Village in North Miami, he called Jimmy Grogan, and he said, ‘We gotta stop this now.’ So Grogan--and Bobby Moore, before Bobby got killed--looked for that 1964 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. And they found it at the Castaways Motel. And they watched it ’til it pulled out to leave. And they pulled the guys over. Grogan said, ‘What are you doing in town?’ They said, ‘Well, we’re from Canada. We’re with the so-and-so boss there. We were havin’ a good time, we saw this blond-headed freak down here…we thought we’d go down and singe his hair, slash his face, and kill him.’ And Grogan says, ‘I’m sorry, but he’s a friend of my boss. That ain’t gonna happen.’
“So Grogan come to the barn that night, and he’s always a scary guy. He says, ‘Come to the office, I gotta talk to you.’ So I went in the office, Tommy A. was there, they said, ‘Don’t turn around.’ And I heard the door lock behind me. I thought, ‘This is a mission to kill me.’ But Tommy A. says, ‘You can relax and breathe. The two guys are on a plane, and they’re not ridin’ upstairs.’ They killed them and put them in the cargo of a plane! And that was that.”
CIRCLES IN WAYNE’S MIND
I accomplished my dream. Then I got stale. And then frightened…you wonder, ‘Will I die a failure, an unknown?’
“I didn’t like the hippie thing,” Cochran confessed to writer Alec Palao. Wayne was old school: music should be punchy, full of pizazz--and a star should look good onstage, not stumbling around the stage in patched elephant bells. Showmanship was the name of Wayne’s game, and rock of the day left him cold. “Great musicians, terrible songs,” he told me. From his point of view the ‘60s were “the most horrible time in our country.”
Yet the way somewhere along Wayne acquiesced. Not only was the air let out of the hair, he grew a beard and “tried a new image.” The result was the 1972 album Cochran. Despite the hippie concessions, the album was one of Wayne’s most heartfelt creations, with some anguished songs inspired by a break-up with Monica: “It was all about her,” he told me of Cochran. It was far from his only crisis at the time.
Wayne was rocketing towards implosion. He’d had fallen prey to those seemingly inescapable pitfalls that accompany stardom. The grind of the road had taken its toll. “That’s how I wound up on drugs…burnt out. You finally have to starting taking something to get your energy up. Then when you get off, you gotta take something to go down so you can go to sleep.” It took a quart of Southern Comfort to knock him out at night (later on he’d joke to his church, “I know a lot of preachers drink Nyquil…sinners drink Southern Comfort. One’s green, one’s brown, that’s all”).
Mocking his old self to his congregation years later, Cochran described his persona then as the “baddest dude in town--had the best cocaine, lotsa grass, had it flown in in suitcases…Columbian Red…gold chains shirts unbuttoned to your navel…actin’ like an Italian when you’re from Georgia…dressed like an Italian, walks like a black man…And if you think he looks confused, he’s about as confused as he is…but he knows where it’s at—‘Hey man, right on!”
Behind the glittery, rhinestoned façade was a terrified individual. The Cochran album flopped. An associate had run off with 72 grand. Wayne owed a fortune to the IRS. He had reoccurring problems with his throat, which led to an operation and a cancer scare. (“I had three specialists tell me I had 90 days to live,” he told Rolling Stone. “When I woke up the 91st morning it was a mother!”) Certain of his early demise, he’d yell at audience members that chose to leave his show early. “You gonna walk out on me?!? I’m dyin’!!!!”
Cochran was so destitute he was “borrowing money from the guy who had one time been my chauffeur to buy cigarettes. My band payroll was about three, four weeks behind. I owed about 25 thousand on the bus we were leasing.” Even when he was on top, Wayne would ride around in his limo and stare at homeless people on the street, wondering if he’d suffer the same fate. And now he felt it was inevitable.
“My whole fear was not dying, my fear was living—‘If I’m here now and I’m on my way down, what’s it gonna be like five years from now? Am I gonna be livin’ in a Salvation Army place at a mission, eatin’ soup, sleepin’ the streets? Is that how my kids are gonna see me? Is that where I’m headed?’”
The walls were closing in. “I was a blonde-headed freak and a fly-by-night. My children were going to find out what a nothing I was, my mother was going to find out exactly what I was.”
Worst of all was Monica leaving. “She didn’t wanna be hurt no more. I kept goin’ with women after we married, like an idiot. She left me, and I realized how much I loved her and I didn’t never want anybody else. We were broke up, she had found a guy and I heard they were finally getting married.”
One night he was out on the road in Lake Tahoe in agony over the situation. “We got snowed in, couldn’t leave. So I wrote this song—‘There once was a man, standin’ up on the mountain, lookin’ down on a church below/Hundreds of people watching his bride, she had another man by her side/The teardrops were big as marbles, as they come rollin’ down the mountainside/He walked away without a scratch, but on that mountain is where he died/’Cause you don’t know it if you ain’t lived it/And if you ain’t lived it, you can’t feel it/And if you can’t feel it, don’t try to talk about it/Leave it up to the man sittin’ in the world of snow.’ That’s what that was about.”
Even more despondent was another cut off Cochran--“Circles,” a song that came about onstage one night. “I was doing a performance in Vegas. A lot of times I would cut a song down to soft volume and talk over it.” He’d been singing a cover of an R&B song, the titles of which remains forgotten, although Wayne remembered it had the word “circles” in the title [perhaps the 1969 hit by Friends of Distinction, “You Got Me Going in Circles”?—Editor.] when a mysterious new song took over. Cochran was in a crisis—over his career, over his life.
“Through hard work and everything I had finally got a taste of what success was like. And once you have it, to lose it was bad. When my career took off I would have never believed it would have happened. I had never planned it--and since I hadn’t planned it, I was very insecure about it. Because I didn’t know how I got there. And now I was trying to find my way back. I blew my fame and popularity. I figured they’d already seen me, so there’s nothing new, so I didn’t think I’d ever make it back.
“And so those lyrics started to come to mind: ‘People look at me/I don’t know where I’m at/I don’t know how I got here/And I can’t find my way back/ I’m walking around in circles and my head’s bending low/I’ve got plenty of time to get there, but I’ve got no place to go.’ It was a true feeling at that time.”
Wayne was going down slow. “Here I am goin’ down the road on the bus with the band thinkin’, ‘I’m dyin’, cancer’s goin’ through my body, I’m in debt to the government, my wife’s left, my kids left.’ I mean, ain’t nothing left of me…this is it. There is no way out of this.”
“I put a gun to my head.”
Cochran was at the point of no return. “I felt like I’d lost control of everything in my life. I couldn’t live with that helpless feeling.” And yet he maintained it was the act of holding that steel barrel to his cranium that saved his life. “Strange thing. I took a gun, put it at my head, and realized. ‘I do have control of the situation. I can do this anytime I want to.’ And that gave me a feeling of control back. Realizing I can kill myself was a sense of control. I could determine when and how.” He didn’t recognize it at the time, but later realized it was a gift from above: “The first thing that God gave me was hope,” he’d tell his church.
“I’m gonna see if I can turn this around,” he told himself at the time. “I’m gonna look at it logically and just as cold and as hard as death if I have to—and see if it’s changing at all--and if it ain’t, boom!”
WHY DON’T YOU TELL THE TRUTH
Cochran began looking for an answer, any answer. “That’s when I started searching—‘Is there a way to success through a formula that’s guaranteed? Is there a way?’ I was trying to improve my life, trying to win.” One night the band pulled into a truck stop to eat. “And I sit down the booth. There was something touching my back. I reached back and grabbed it. It was a book, a big hard cover. Coincidentally, the name of it was Gilgamesh: First Seeker of Truth in the First Millennium. And here I am looking for the truth!” Cochran read The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. Chariot of the Gods. The Late, Great Planet Earth. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He studied the pyramids, numerology, witchcraft and the occult, immersing himself in the teachings of others. “I started studying all that trying to find, ‘Is there a rule of truth?’ That’s how it came to be. I was looking for the truth. Because I believe the truth works.”
Cochran gave a dramatic illustration of that belief. “I had lied myself into so many things, ‘cause I was great at lyin’ myself out of them. But I was losing friends over it. So I swore one day, I said, ‘That’s it--I’m never gonna tell another lie, I don’t care what it is.’
“And to show you how the devil will challenge you: two nights later I’m in Milwaukie. We’re downstairs in the dressin’ room and there was a guy up there that was the head Secretary of the Treasury for the Milwaukie Outlaws biker gang. He really liked my show. He could put on a blazer and dress pants to come see me, bring his girl. I really appreciated that.
“But his girlfriend wanted to go to bed with me. And her girlfriend was with a guy in the band, Don Capron. And so one night they got us out, and she literally told me that if I didn’t go to bed with her, she was gonna tell him that I did. And he would kill me! So…I did.” Meaning he slept with the biker’s girlfriend.
“And two weeks later, I’m in Milwaukie, and that’s where he’s from. And he comes in the dressin’ room. And I done swore I’ll never tell another lie….
“He grabbed me by the throat pushed me up against the wall, puts a gun to my head. He said, ‘You screwed my wife.’ At first I said, ‘No!’ And then I said, ‘Wait…I did. I can’t undo it. I did it and I’m sorry. I truly am. Nothin’ I can do, unless you wanna talk about it.’ I thought he was gonna kill me.
“So he set down, still had the gun on me, and I said, ‘Listen, if you pull that trigger it’ll be over for me, but you gotta live with it. Or we can talk.’
“I sit down, started talking to him, and he started cryin’. And we stayed friends. Like I said, I wasn’t gonna lie. Had a guy put a gun to my head, and I didn’t lie. If I had tried to lie my way out of it, he would’ve killed me. ‘Cause those guys did that all the time, it wasn’t nothin’ to them. I told the truth. And it worked. Saved my life.”
Cochran might’ve become an honest man, but none of the teachings that he’d examined stayed with him. Nor any of the books they came out of. As he told Reverend Billy C. Wirtz, “Sooner or later, I’d find something wrong with it and find some jive in there. And I’d throw it away.”
And then he picked up a Gideon Bible in an Austin, Texas motel. Growing up, the Cochran family “had a Bible in the house, but nobody ever read it." Since it had been referenced in so many other things he’d been studying, he figured he might as well go to the source. “That’s really what led me to knowing how to accept the Lord. I took it, hid that Bible in a towel. I didn’t know they put them there for you to take. So I didn’t steal the Bible--I stole a towel.
“Then I wondered, ‘Is this a real Bible?’ I wanted a real Bible to see if they said the same thing. I went to a Bible bookstore, I think it was Cincinnati. Pulled the bus up in front of it, went in and said, ‘I wanna buy a Bible.’ She said, ‘what kind?’ I was shocked—I said, ‘A BIBLE Bible.’ She said, ‘What translation?’ I said, ‘I want a Bible like my Mama had.’ She said, ‘You’re probably talking about King James.’ So she handed me one, I took the saran wrap off, I looked down and said, ‘Yeah, this is the one I want.’”
Now that he had his own personal copy, he began to study it in earnest. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or wasn’t supposed to do, and I had no Christians to tell me, so I just started reading the book,” he’d tell his congregation. “I would go to the Bible and take one subject at a time and start trying to do that the way the Bible said do it. And it would work.” Cochran found that no matter what problem he faced, he could find an answer within those pages. He compared it to finding Aladdin’s lamp. “The Bible is a book of formulas. For everything. God created everything and he knows how it works and how it responds. Then he wrote a book to tell you how to do it. Can’t get better than that.”
The Lord worked in mysterious ways for Wayne Cochran. One night he and the band played a one-nighter in a tiny club in Melbourne, Florida. The joint didn’t even have a dressing room—Cochran had to change in a beer cooler—but Wayne was, as always, thinking big and ready to slay.
“You get yourself all ready for an entrance…these people paid twenty bucks a head. You better look like something, baby,” as he recalled to his church. Cochran charged out doing a high-powered version of “Dance to the Music” known to knock ‘em dead--“By the time I did that, honey, I got you in my hip pocket.”
Halfway through the song “all the lights went out and the band went dead.” Wayne headed back to the beer cooler to regroup. “They already know the first song…I’m figurin’ out how to recoup from this, so I decided to change clothes. Whole new suit.”
Back out onstage, back into the opening number. The power went out again.
“By now you don’t feel like a star, you feel like the biggest idiot in the building.” Backstage Cochran went, putting on yet another outfit. “I’m fixin’ to go through my whole wardrobe on the first show.”
“Band assures me, light man assures me: under control. By now it’s already so funny you gotta go out and make a joke to recover from your embarrassment.” He starts the show again. Out goes the power.
“Now honey, right about here I was about ready to cuss the whole crowd out…I don’t have to go through this humiliation, I’m a star—‘When you join civilization and have enough power to run something other than a candle, call me.’ But I got ahold of myself and I told them were not going to allow the devil to rob us of the joy God had planned for us tonight.”
Wayne found himself once more in the beer cooler. “Now when I go back this time, let me tell you something—there’s nothing spiritual about me. I done lost my cool. It was Wayne Cochran, flesh city. I wanted the band to challenge me so I could kill one of them.”
Instead he prayed. “The Bible says when you pray in tongues, in unknown language, it edifies the spirit, because edify means to charge up. So I just keep praying the spirit.” After about fifteen minutes, Cochran reemerged onstage. “I felt like a brand new me…I went out in the same suit I had on. I said, ‘Look we ain’t goin’ through no big rigmarole, we just startin’ the show right now, ‘cause I’m gonna do this show…the gates of hell will not prevail, we gonna rock and roll tonight!’” He blazed through the hour and a half show. “We won--standing ovation.”
Then came Spirit Lake. “I finally got talkin’ about the Lord and all the books I’m reading. But I’d never verbally accepted the Lord, because I was afraid. If I accepted the Lord, then how could I keep doing what I was doing? ‘Cause religion would tell you that you can’t do that. If I’d have accepted the Lord, I would’ve had to quit, and that was all we had to do to make a living and take care of my family. So I wouldn’t do it.
“I went to Spirit Lake, Iowa, for a one-nighter. And it was way off the main drag, down a dirt road off the lake. So we got through with the show and got on the bus. The bus wouldn’t crank, wouldn’t even turn over, the battery was dead. Set there a while, we tried it again. Wouldn’t crank.
“We had to get to the next gig, and I’m thinkin’ the Lord is doing this to me. So I got off the bus and got Don Capron, one of my band members, to go with me. I went down by the lake and I said, ‘I want you to witness this.’ And I got on my knees and accepted the Lord. Went got back on the bus, cranked it up and it started—the first time. And we pulled out. That’s what happened in Spirit Lake.” The next year he was baptized in a YMCA swimming pool in Atlanta.
Cochran maintained he quit drugs and booze cold turkey. “I finally got to where I didn’t need all that,” he’d tell his congregation. A new kind of high replaced the Southern Comfort he’d had to guzzle as he hit the sack. “I’d have fun—I’d lay there and in my mind I’d see the name of Jesus in neon on solid black…I’d go to sleep just seein’ the name of Jesus just blinkin’ off and on…sleep right like a baby.”
Getting his family back proved to be the biggest challenge. Wayne zeroed in on a particular line of scripture from Acts 16:3—“And they said, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”
“That gave me hope,” he’d say in a sermon. “I made that scripture mine, and I made it personal…I realized God’s not in the business of savin’ houses--concrete block mortar and stucco…so I knew that ‘house’ meant the people in my house--my wife and my children.”
Not that the reunion took place overnight. To hear Cochran tell it, he and Monica had a rather intense relationship. An undated sermon entitled “Faith Gives Hope Substance” gives rather hilarious insight into their relationship, as well as Cochran’s tenacity. Here’s what Wayne told his church:
“I got a wife who didn’t want me…my wife was 3000 miles away, wouldn’t answer a phone! And when she did—‘What are you talkin’ to me for, you fat slob? You make me sick. You make me wanna vomit! Don’t ever call me again!’
“I’d get off two or three o’clock in the morning and call her, she’d be drunk—‘I’ve been out havin’ fun dancing and I brought a young man home with me. We fixin’ to have more fun—you wanna talk to him?’ And [she’d] hand the guy the phone. Now he’s embarrassed. H-h-hi, Mr. Cochran.’ And you think you got problems, man? You ain’t got no problems. If she’s breathing, you’re winning!
“You live through all that and you finally get her to marry you again. And the day you marry her again she says, ‘I just want you to know this: you’re never gonna have me. But I ain’t never loved no other man. My daughter loves you and you love her. She needs a father. I’ll marry you on those conditions, but you will never touch me.’
“Hey now, if you’re proud, you won’t do it. But if you’re lookin’ to win, you will. You see, I don’t care what they call me in the stand as long as they let me take another pitch. You can call me anything you want to, but throw the ball, baby!’
Get your pride outta the way, fool! Winners can’t afford pride, you just win regardless…
“I finally married her. She laid on the side of the bed and drank Lancers and Mateus and passed out. ‘Hey, this gonna be fun, because you love me too much to ever leave me--and you’re never gonna touch me, so I’m gonna get to lay here and watched you tortured until you DIE.’
“You think I didn’t have hope? Sure I did. I’m layin’ in the bed with her now. Throw the ball! I’m out to win the game, understand? I don’t care if I’m 72 years old, breathin’ my last breath, they finally bring her in and I ain’t seen her for forty years and she walks up and says, ‘Baby, I was wrong--I really do love you. Will you forgive me? I say ‘’Home run, I won.’
“Winners have scars but they win. Losers don’t have no scars, they hide in the closet with their thumb in their mouth--You want all the rewards, [but] you don’t want the scars…Don’t worry about no scars cuttin’ me, honey. I can be healed. I got a God that’s ETERNAL.”
After the failure of Cochran, Wayne had returned to the old pompadour and circumstance (the Fountainbleau had instructed him, “shave the beard or don’t come back”). But the high-profile gigs were shrinking, and the last pop record Cochran put out was in 1976, an obscure 45 produced by Clarence “Blowfly” Reid for Florida music mogul Henry Stone, a Helmut-Newton-in-the-disco number written by Wayne called “Shoot the Model” (“Girl, I been watchin’ you in this discotheque…Girl, if you don’t see a camera, don’t worry about it/Just make believe it’s in my hand”).
Cochran was stuck back in the same old Miami haunts, like Bachelors III West and the Seven Seas Lounge (“where they mix their gin with Geritol,” noted one reviewer). By the end of the seventies Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders were no more.
Cochran returned to the Miami area and started a gospel group with some local musicians and his daughter Diane. And then in April, 1981, he received word from above. “I was prayin’ one night. I remember Monica was lyin’ there asleep and I was prayin’ and I began to pray in the spirit, in tongues. And I got up and was walkin’ around the room and just singin’ and praisin’ God. I lay back down and He spoke to me. He says, ‘I chose a life for you in the ministry. I called you into it. I want you to tell my children how much I love ‘em, ‘cause when they realize how much I love ‘em, they’ll trust me.’ Now, I never studied love. The only thing I ever studied was faith. I said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to do this.’ He said, ‘Sure you do.’”
On September 9, 1981, Cochran got his corporate nonprofit number, and that night he hosted fourteen people for Bible study in his home. This was the start of his Miami-area Voice for Jesus Church. Other than a few appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and Love, Love, Love, a self-produced gospel album that includes a wicked cover of Andraé Crouch’s “You Don’t Have to Jump No Pews (I’ve Been Born Again),” Cochran’s music was relegated to inside church.
He was as unrestrained in the pulpit as he was belting out R&B covers at the Barn. "We're loud. It burns,” he told a reporter in 1983. “I believe in the power of music. If you don't want to get ecstatic, don't come to this church…We have a good time. We boogie."
Wayne’s was not the hellfire-and-damnation approach. "I've never talked about sin…That's not how I found the Lord. I found the Lord through reading and doing and putting those words into action and seeing the evidence.” At times he spoke of the Bible mystically. It was a “book of dreams...of desires...of mysteries.”
From the beginning Wayne would do things his way at Voice for Jesus. Early on, “a very learned minister” who’d been responsible for starting over two-dozen churches came to visit. “I was this sort of rebel, y’know--I didn’t know what I was talkin’ about much,” Cochran recounted during a sermon. The minister witnessed a Q & A session Wayne presided over that Wednesday night. “He said, ‘You know, ‘I’d give anything if I could do that.’ And I’m thinkin’, ‘What’s wrong with him? He knows more than I do.’ I said, ‘Why can’t you?’ He says, ‘But what if I didn’t know the answer?’ I said, Simple. Tell them you don’t know the answer.’”
This was Cochran’s style— practical, direct, unpretentious. Various taped sermons of Wayne in action have survived on youtube, and they are a wonder. He’d engage his audience by nudging them to finish lines of scripture, or ask them questions, putting exclamation points on passages by calling out, “Are you hearin’ me?” “Am I right?” “Are you with me?” Wayne brought a little show biz into the pulpit with him, of course. He’d dance from one side of the room to the other, play guitar, sing, tell jokes. Cochran might address the congregation as “honey” or drop a “jive turkey” along the way.
Cochran was able to attract all sorts of people to his church. “I was a crackhead living in the streets,” Harry Hartman, who’s attended Voice for Jesus Church for over thirty years, told me. “One of the reasons I went there was because of the music. Him being from the same rock era, from my generation, I related to the way he preached. Pastor Wayne didn’t lie, and if he made a mistake he would tell you…he didn’t put on a façade, he was just a real kind of guy.”
Cochran could be self-deprecating: “Why did God choose us? I tried to figure it out and I can’t. I wouldn’t choose me.” Cranky: “‘Pastor Wayne, who you gonna vote for?’ That ain’t none of your business. That’s why you do it in a booth.” Even a bit cutting: “See, we don’t believe God’s word”--[Wayne breaks into a dumb Southern belle accent]—“‘Isn’t that cute? That’s such a sweet thing to say. Makes me feel so much better.’ No, it’s the TRUTH. Everything else is a lie.” Wayne was not afraid to reference hookers and pimps in his sermons, nor his colorful past. And he didn’t mind poking fun at a pompous preacher or two.
“Religion” was not a word Cochran was fond of. As far as he was concerned it described another trap of the devil. “The word ‘religious,’ believe it or not, means to be bound again. Religion is bondage. It’s all do’s and don’ts. You got out of the bondage of sin, you go right back into bondage? Religion is an organized belief system. I’m not bound to it. I don’t have religion, I have a relationship--a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Theology was another term Cochran didn’t care for. “I have trouble with theology. I’m not a theologian. Theology is for people who want to learn to do things by a set of principles. That’s their theory. I don’t have a theology, I have a relationship. It’s not a theory, it’s a real-ology. Jesus is real.”
It’s no surprise that Cochran was a controversial character to some in the church. He was pals with controversial minister Kenneth Copeland, a Texan who’d enjoyed a pre-church Top 40 hit in 1957 (“Pledge of Love”) and had gone onto being a main proponent of the prosperity gospel, a belief that wealth and health are God’s will (Copeland was criticized for million-dollar Gulfstream jets paid for by his ministry so he could avoid commercial aircraft, which he described as “a long tube filled with demons.”) Cochran was a great admirer of his 1974 book The Laws of Prosperity, a book for which Wayne felt “the church and religious community was just destroying” Copeland.
Wayne was outspoken in his beliefs, which also got him in trouble early on. “The Kingdom of Heaven is referred to in the Bible 158 times in the New Testament, more than any other subject, so I started talkin’ about the Kingdom,” he told his congregation one day, relating how he was in demand for church appearances.
“I was in show biz, I had a name--they figured I’d draw a lot of people. So if somebody had me for a service, somebody would call and say, ‘Well, how did he do? Should I bring him in?’ And they said, ‘Well, you can bring him in, but be careful, ‘cause he’s into that Kingdom Now thing.’…So I really got butchered because of that…guess what the devil don’t want taught? The Kingdom. And the church always goes for his trickery…he has to stop the church from makin’ advancement.”
The Voice for Jesus Church grew, and for a while Cochran had a gospel show broadcast live from the church on TBN, The Way, The Truth and The Life. And Monica was on there with him—as a fellow minister. “When Monica was a young girl, she had gotten very hurt at her home church, so she wouldn’t go no more. And when I first got involved with the Lord and started havin’ services, she wouldn’t come. So for about three or four months Monica never came to any service. But she finally started coming, and she started singin’ a little bit. Monica would minister to people one on one. She was just very sensitive to people.”
Cochran was supportive of women in the church. He told me that the reason for this was due to witnessing a service by Kenneth Copeland and his wife Gloria, who’s also a minister. “They had a healin’ line one service. Her and Kenneth were goin’ down the line prayin’ for people. She got in front of this guy and he said, ‘Don’t put your hands on me. I’m a man. You’re a woman.’ And it just broke her heart.
“For that reason I had to find out what the Bible really said about women. So I did a series called “Women, Free at Last.” Diana was head of the holy of holies, she was a woman. Powerful women in the Bible…there’ve been a lot of great women ministers. To start out with, you’re not supposed judge people according to male or female. We say woman’s the weaker sex, that’s not what the Bible says…women are equal to men.”
Wayne believed in disciplining children and recounted whipping his son Chris with Chris’s own python belt. “You’ve trained ‘em to act on the third command, not the first spank,” he’d preach. “One thing I can’t stand is a hollerin’, screamin’ brat… ‘Why don’t you mind your mommy?’ Because you don’t have a mommy…you have another kid for a mommy.”
As entertaining as Cochran could sometimes be, he refused to candy-coat things when it came to his understanding of the Bible. During a sermon Wayne related how difficult ministering was when you had to tell loved ones their beliefs just weren’t strong enough. At the time his aunt had just lost her husband.
“I really wanted to help her,” but, he admitted in such delicate situations, “if you don’t watch it, you begin lying in the name of Jesus…the devil will begin to tell you that’s the proper thing to do--that you can’t be straightforward or blunt with someone who’s hurt.
“You have to comfort or pacify them…you start lyin’ about the gospel”—Cochran went into his sanctimonious preacher voice to deliver the next line--‘Well, I believe God allowed it to happen, because if it wasn’t His will, all the prayers would’ve been answered.’
“Sometimes it seems like the truth is just wrong--the devil will make you think that: ‘Wayne, you gonna go in to somebody’s who hurtin’ already and devastated and tell them…their inadequacy in God is the reason their husband’s in the grave?…
‘Brother Wayne, it’s not your fault.’ Yes it is—it’s absolutely my fault. It’s the fault of every Christian on earth today…we can be compassionate with each other…or we can face the facts.”
Cochran pulled no punches with his bereaving aunt. “We talked until two o’clock in the morning. I wasn’t gonna tell her no lie…‘Wayne, you’re tryin’ to tell me this is my fault?’ ‘Yup, and we gotta accept it as Christians.’ It’s also her husband’s fault. He didn’t have faith to turn it around. She didn’t have faith to turn it around. I didn’t have faith to turn it around…Who committed sin?” Cochran asked the congregation.
Streets of gold
STREETS OF GOLD
"On Sunday I don’t preach, I teach. You preach to an unsaved man. You teach one who’s saved. He don’t need saving anymore. He needs to learn."
I interviewed Wayne Cochran in June, 2017. His wife had passed away unexpectedly that February, and in setting up that talk it became obvious his staff were concerned for him. They seemed glad he had something to take his mind off the grief for a minute or two.
With Chili’s restaurant providing a synthetic backdrop that only amplified the intensity of my interviewee, I asked Wayne as much about his church life as his music. Three words come up again and again in Cochran’s sermons: hope, faith, love. He didn’t just toss the trio into his speech like greeting-card clichés, he defined each word, carefully explained why it was important, and why he returned to them again and again.
“Faith goes against all intellect, all reasoning, all knowledge,” he’d said in a recent sermon. “You’re tryin’ to believe in somethin’ that you can’t see…Anytime you hear anybody use reasoning to lower the expectation of the word, that’s the flesh, that’s the world, that’s not God. You really think that you’re gonna figure out the sense and logic in God’s word? Ain’t no way. What we have to do is shut up and believe…What do you have for proof? Faith. That’s all I need. Because I believe it, it is.”
So faith and reason just don’t go together, I asked. “Oh, no. Reasoning is what man’s mind concludes is true. If your reasoning differs from what His word says, change your reasoning. See, your reasoning is what conclusion you come to from all your experiences and thoughts in life. That don’t mean it’s real.”
I laughed, telling him those experiences certainly felt real. “Well, cannibals believe what they doin’ is real. It’s normal to them…That don’t make it normal. You can’t trust what society says is normal.”
I got the feeling Wayne actually savored the idea that there are those who find it a little crazy to believe in the good book. That just made it a little more special. Had he ever doubted his faith?
“Oh, yeah. I think everybody does, because the devil never quits. I doubt if my faith is as strong as it should be. And I also sometimes doubt what I believe. Is there really a God? Prove it. You can’t. Is Jesus really his son? I have no idea. But then, I believe what the Bible says, so yeah, I do believe there’s only one true God, and it’s God almighty, and Jesus was his son. And I can scientifically tell you why Jesus had to be born and why he was born the way he was. I can prove that technically, not just mystically. Next time we meet remind me to tell you that.”
Little epiphanies like this made Wayne irresistible. First he admitted to doubting his belief, and then, in the same breath, invited me—someone he’d just met—to come back so he could prove his existence “technically.”
Did he recall his first sermon?
“No, but I remember my shortest sermon. The pastor introduced me, I walked up and said, ‘It is finished’ and went and set back down. The pastor was going nuts. I finally got up and said, ‘Lemme tell you why I said that. When Jesus said, ‘It is finished,’ he meant everything is finished. It’s over, it’s done. You won. That’s what that meant to me. It wasn’t that He was finished. IT was finished. Because when he died on the cross and rose, He overcame all the defeat in history.”
What was the most challenging thing he found in the Bible, I asked.
“Well, I had to really explore deeply, and the hardest thing was--it led me to what I believe--the word ‘grace.’ Grace has become the most important word in the Bible to me. Because I believe in absolute grace. Not law. John 1:17. Clearly separated: Moses come to bring the law, Jesus come to bring grace and truth. That’s it. So if you still livin’ by the law, you’re living denying what Jesus did. The law tells what you can’t do. And that gives sin the strength, ‘cause you start wanting to do it. I didn’t quit the law, I quit wantin’ the law. I quit wanting those things, it just fell away.”
Cochran had a funny way of referring to “the world,” which I took to mean everything outside of his church. And I got the feeling that everything in that world, whether it be a cop issuing a parking ticket or organized religion, was bound to the law, and he saw no need to bow to any of it. Absolute grace was…absolute. “People would say, ‘Well, you’re takin’ that too far. I’d say, ‘Naw, you can’t take it far enough.’”
After a while I asked if he minded talking about Monica. “No,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “Monica passed away February 17th, this year. And I’ll never get used to that. I’ll never be married again. They’ll never be another woman in my life as long as I’m alive. She’s it.”
Just what was so special about her, I asked. “Well, go on Facebook, look up Monica Cochran, read some things she said and that people said about her. Unbelievable things—‘she changed my life,’ ‘she told me to do this,’ ‘I spoke to her one time and my life was changed forever.’ I didn’t even see these things when she was alive. But I do know a lot of the wisdom people thought I had really came from her. She’d say, ‘Babe, you can’t do this--you need to do this’…and I’d do it, and it would work. She was incredibly sensitive, caring and loving. She was a very, very wise woman. Momma Monica. She was all our mommas.”
I thought it would be a little weird to reveal that early in the course of my research I’d already gone on Facebook and pored over his wife’s page. My gut had told me there was a great and dramatic love story between Wayne and Monica, and when I found out she’d passed, I almost didn’t proceed with my interview request. Now I was glad I did, even if I’d only hear from one-half of that union.
Wayne continued. “I buried her in a casual outfit, ‘cause I knew she wouldn’t want me to put her in nice clothes to waste to giving them to somebody.” Everybody recognized the jumpsuit she was buried in, Wayne was happy to report. “That was her favorite outfit. I put her in a silver blue casket with black inside. I went back and bought another one for me. And I bought a double mausoleum so we can both be in there. Forever. In matching caskets.
He pointed at his own casual, well-worn outfit of black shirt and pants. “And I’m gonna be buried in this. I wore this one so much Monica said, ‘Baby, you gotta quit wearing that, people gonna think that’s the only outfit you got.’ But I wore it a lot and I want ‘em to put me away in this. Closed coffin. Ain’t nobody gonna see you, why I gotta be in a suit and tie?”
The next day I attended service at the Voice for Jesus Church. Located in a drab strip mall in an industrial area, attendance was far from the days when he had his TBN TV show. It is the friendliest church I’ve ever been in. Everybody was gathering in a large, white meeting room with fluorescent light and folding chairs. A couple of teenagers did an interpretive dance number to start things off, and members of the choir sang a few numbers with the band. There had been a small, scattered audience at first, but by the time Cochran started maybe a hundred people filled the space, and they were there to listen. The love for Pastor Wayne was palpable in the room.
His sermon was as idiosyncratic as ever. These days he no longer flew around the room, instead opting for a quiet, dignified delivery that only added gravity to his words. That Sunday was Father’s Day, and this was his subject. Honor both thy Father and fathers everywhere was the message. And after the sermon, Wayne let it be known, he intended to honor himself. “I’m gonna go by McDonald’s this afternoon and I’m gonna get me an honorable cheeseburger. And I’m gonna honor myself with it.” This provoked some tittering in the pews. “I may even go way overboard and get a chocolate milk.” Next came a discussion of sugar-free popsicles and ice cream.
Wayne seemed to be in a pretty good mood. “I’m a happy man,” he told us. “I set out prayin’ by the pool like I do every mornin’, and I got to thinkin’: I never hear anybody say, ‘I’m happy.’ They always say, ‘I’d be happy if…’ or ‘I’ll be happy when..’ I sat there and thought, ‘Man, I’m happy. I’m a really happy man.’ Except I couldn’t fit Monica into that—Why did she have to pass?”
Monica’s name had frequently come up in Wayne’s sermons since her death. “She’s in heaven, and according to the Book of Revelations, she’s walkin’ in a city of gold on streets of gold--and Monica loved gold, so she’s not around any shortage of it. Not only that, I’m gonna be there, too. And I’m gonna see her again.”
Sooner than anyone thought. After our interview, I returned home completely obsessed by the guy. Wayne was a pretty unique character, and I’ve met a few. I just couldn’t shake the guy, and I had a million more questions. So I discussed with the boss here at byNWR how we could take it further. We decided to undertake a documentary on Wayne’s life, and I sent him a brief letter outlining our plans. We wanted to interview him extensively, not only there in Florida, but also visiting his old haunts in Vegas and Georgia.
When I called Cochran in August with a few follow-up questions, the subject was broached. Yes, we had his permission to pursue the project, but he made clear he wasn’t about to get on a plane to Vegas. “I don’t fly any more,” he said definitively. How about a train, I asked somewhat in jest. “That would take forever,” he responded, a bit testy. Going by rail to his childhood home in Georgia wouldn’t take all that long, I countered. He begrudgingly agreed he just might be able to do that.
On October 8th we sent a cameraman down to his church to shoot a sermon so it could accompany this article. Wayne was a no-show. It became apparent that Cochran had been MIA from his church. People told our cameraman Wayne was sick with grief and couldn’t get out of bed. But it would turn out he was fighting another battle as well.
In the oncoming weeks we tried to reschedule, but Wayne was nowhere to be found. The last sermon on his youtube channel had been posted that September 3, 2017. His final words from the tape of that service were “Praise you, Jesus. Hallelujah. Go ahead and praise Him this morning.”
To my knowledge, Wayne never returned to the pulpit, although in the last week of his life, he’d attended church. “He was in a wheelchair, and his son was pushing him,” said Harry Hartman. “He couldn’t even stay for a quarter of the service, he was too sick.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m enjoyin’ bein’ here pretty good…I’m not in a hurry to go,” he’d told his congregation during that September sermon. “When God says, ‘Wrap it up,’ I’ll say OK.’”
Apparently he got that message. Cochran passed away at his Miramar home November 21, 2018. Cancer was the cause of death given by the family, with no other information given. There came a flurry of obituaries, most of them leading with the hair.
Wayne Cochran was one of the mighty few. I hope he made it to the pearly gates, with Monica right there to greet him. As Wayne himself would’ve admitted, it’s kind of a screwball notion. There’s no reason to it, no logic--at least out here in “the world.” Who knows? Maybe he’s up there, walking those streets of gold, reunited with his love.
As Wayne had told his church, “Heaven is eternal…there’s no end…I can’t wait to have a get-together in heaven. Can you imagine if I meet Monica and I take her hand and go walkin’? We can walk forever. And ever. And ever…it never ends. Only joy. Only joy.”
Thanks to the writers that covered Cochran before me, among them: Roy Bongartz, Scott Freeman, John Capouya, Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, Alec Palao, Jim Marshall, John Floyd, Bill Milkowski, Mike Bourne.
Special thanks to Carole Bastura and Harry Hartman. Some photos were courtesy of Wayne Cochran.
Jimmy McDonough is a biographer and journalist. He has written acclaimed biographies of Neil Young, Tammy Wynette, Russ Meyer and Andy Milligan. Time magazine declared his Milligan biography The Ghastly One "a masterpiece" and John Waters has repeatedly named it one of his all-time favourites. McDonough has also authored profiles on Jimmy Scott, Gary Stewart, Hubert Selby, Jr., the Ormond family and Link Wray. His latest book is Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green. Jimmy’s website: www.jimmymcdonough.com
(1) Some reports put Clark’s death well after Cochran recorded “Last Kiss.” There are those who claim Cochran stole the song, and others who maintain he wrote it with uncredited band members. As far as I know Wayne never commented on these controversies. He certainly wrote other songs solo.
“When I put my hands on the plough…” WC undated sermon, “The Faith of Christ Within Me”
“I’m not trying…” WC to Roy Bongartz, “Wayne Cochran Lets the Sunshine and Vice Versa,” Esquire, 4.70
“That was my cause…” WC to Scott Freeman, OTIS! The Otis Redding Story, St. Martin’s, 2001
“I just sell…” WC to Bongartz
“I like anything that is exciting and intense,” WC to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, “Wayne Cochran The 'White Knight of Soul' Survives,” Georgia Music website, http://georgiamusic.org/wayne-cochran-2/, 9.25.08
“Part Irish, part Scotch…” undated sermon
“a funky snuff-dipping lady…” WC to Bongartz
“We were the down people…” Ibid
“Have uniforms, Presley-style vocalist.” Noted in Alec Palao liner notes to Goin’ Back To Miami: The Soul Sides, Ace Records, 2014
“I’d go to the Negro section …” WC to unknown, “So Says White Knight of Rock n’ Roll,” unknown date, publication, author
“They saw I wasn’t going to stop.” Ibid
“I was ready to burn…” WC to Freeman, Otis!
"a '50s song in the '60s,” WC to Sean Piccoli, “Revival for a Rocker,” Sun-Sentinel, 7.21.99
“I Arouse And Excite An Audience,” WC To Jack Zink, “Wayne Cochrane [sic]: That Gravel-Throated Soul Man Is Still Rockin’,” Fort Lauderdale News Showtime, Unknown Publication, 10.10.75
“He was so close to James Brown...” WC to Freeman, Otis!
“it changed the color of their hair,” WC to Alec Palao, Goin’ Back To Miami: The Soul Sides,
“a pinkish strawberry color.” WC to Freeman, Otis!
“was my food taster,” Ibid.
“I never lacked for attention,” WC to David Letterman, Late Night with David Letterman, 1982
“Like a depraved Charlie Rich,” Richard Cromelin, “Rock n’ Rant of Wayne Cochran,” Los Angeles Times? 1970s?
“Elvis Presley in one of Zsa-Zsa Gabor’s wigs,” quoted in Bongartz, Esquire
“I want to make extra...” IIbid.
“We'd be out there in the audience…WC to John Floyd, “Soul Salvation,” Miami New Times, January 9, 1997
“I’ve always loved westerns…” WC to Letterma“I was just out of the country…” WC to Jon Marlowe, “Back to Being Myself,” Jon Marlowe’s Music Scene, Miami News, 11.7.74 (emphasis mine)
“The energy came off…” Andy Schwartz, Facebook post, 11.22.17
“As the band vamps… John Huddy, “Old Razorblade-Throat Himself,” unknown date and publication
“To me it was beautiful…” Bongartz, Esquire
“Sort of rare to see in a conservative dining room,” Ibid
“climb up a telephone pole…” Charlie Brent to Bill Milkowski, Jaco: The Extraordinary Life of Jaco Pastorius, ‘The World’s Greatest Bass Player,” Miller-Freeman, 1995
“In the end..” Cromelin, “Rock n’ Rant of Wayne Cochran”
“Rumors are going around…” Lee Ivory, “Among the Stars,” unknown publication and date
“the white vaudeville circuit” WC to John Capouya, Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band, University Press of Florida
“ethnic films…” “Wayne Cochran Bread Butter Ltd for Ethic Films,” Variety, 6.3.70
“I want to campaign…” WC to Bongartz, Esquire.
“I accomplished my dream”…WC to John Huddy, “Ol’ Wayne Is Back With A New Routine,” Miami Herald, 1.3.75
“I didn’t like the hippie thing,” WC to Palao.
“the most horrible time…” WC to Kevin Davis, “A Good Ol` Boy Finds God To Wayne Cochran, Rock Music Was An Escape. Now, Upon That Rock, He Has Built His Church,” Sun-Sentinel, October 11, 1987
“tried a new image,” WC To Zink, “Wayne Cochrane [sic]: That Gravel-Throated Soul Man Is Still Rockin’”
“Sooner or later, I’d find…” WC to Wirtz, “Wayne Cochran The 'White Knight of Soul' Survives”
“had a Bible…” WC to John Floyd, “Soul Salvation,”
“I know a lot of preachers…” WC undated sermon, “Faith Gives Hope Substance”
“baddest dude in town…” WC undated sermon, “Raising your Children”
“I had three specialists…” WC to Bourne, Rolling Stone
“borrowing money from the guy…” WC undated sermon, “The Faith Of Christ Within Me”
“My whole fear was not dying…” Ibid.
“I was a blonde-headed freak…” Ibid.
“The first thing that God..,” Ibid.
“I finally got…” WC undated sermon, “Faith Gives Hope Substance”
“I’d have fun…” Ibid
“That gave me hope…” Ibid.
“I got a wife who didn’t want me…” Ibid.
“shave the beard…” WC quoted in Bourne, Rolling Stone
(“where they mix their gin with Geritol,” Jon Marlowe, “Back to Being Myself”
"I've never talked about sin…” WC to Floyd, “Soul Salvation”
“book of dreams...” WC undated sermon, “The Faith Of Christ Within Me”
“a very learned minister” WC, undated sermon
“I was this sort of rebel…” Ibid.
“Why did God choose…” WC sermon, “How Much God Loves You,” 9.3.17
“‘Pastor Wayne, who you…” WC, undated sermon
“See, we don’t believe…” Ibid.
“I really wanted to help her…” WC undated Sermon, “Faith Gives Hope Substance”
“The Kingdom of Heaven…” WC sermon, “The Kingdom,” 5.7.17
“You’ve trained ‘em to act…” WC undated sermon, “Raising Your Children”
“Faith goes against all intellect…” WC sermon, “Faith,” 10.2.16`
“I’m gonna go by McDonald’s…” WC sermon, “Father’s Day,” 6.18.17
“I’m a happy man…” Ibid.
“She’s in heaven…” WC sermon, 2017
“I don’t know about you…” WC sermon, “How Much God Loves You,” 9.3.17
“Heaven is eternal…” Ibid.