Century City in Beverly Hills may have been someone’s plans for the future, but in the mid 50’s the shaded park like fields contained movie lots for 20th Century Fox. Who would have thought the area leading up to Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevard, overlooked by a newly build Mormon Temple crowning a hill of greenery, would someday be home to giant office buildings, and a famous convention hotel.
I had driven by the area dozens of times on my way into Hollywood and on to Pasadena before I realized an introduction to the casting office could possibly result in some work for a idle actor. Pulling up to the gated entrance, a guard pointed me in the right direction. Creeping along through an obstacle course of speed bumps, I noticed a mini billboard displaying Hollywood’s newest blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield with Tom Ewell in the background promoting “The Girl Can’t Help It”. This new comedy obviously was trading on the recent success of the town’s top sex symbol Marilyn Monroe, who’s “Seven Year Itch” also with Tom Ewell, was a major box office hit.
Hollywood was awash in blonde sex kittens. Big band leader Ray Anthony’s wife, Mamie Van Doren, Kim Novak and an immensely endowed sexpot from Sweden, Anita Ekberg, were among the poor man’s Marilyn hopefuls, ready to claim a title that had been vacant since the platinum blonde locks of Jean Harlow hit the screen two decades earlier. “The girl can’t help it” was already playing in theatres and I certainly couldn’t wait to see Jayne Mansfield, advertised as someone even sexier than Marilyn.
The hype on the lot included Eddie Cochran, who was predominately displayed on the poster promoting the motion picture. Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps and Little Richard, were also in the movie and while I had not yet heard of Vincent, I was already a fan of Little Richard, thanks to the Hunter Hancock radio show.
While I was waiting to meet the young lady at the casting office I first heard “Twenty Flight Rock” being played on a small speaker in the waiting room, I surmised it was Gene Vincent but was corrected to learn it was Eddie Cochran. I don’t know if it was the excitement of my youthful need to embrace the music adults didn’t understand, but I did feel a need to embrace this new music called rock n’ roll. I still liked Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey but now Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley were responsible for cracking the door open for a flood of rock pied pipers to kick it down. The word “black” had not yet surfaced in describing negro artists, but the crossover of “race” music was beginning to find acceptance as white America discovered it via the radio.
“Twenty Flight Rock” was wild to my young ear and I certainly wanted to know more about its originator, Eddie Cochran. The world had yet to hear of the Beatles, of Lennon and McCartney or George Harrison, but they would experience the same excitement upon hearing this singer. Both George Harrison and John Lennon would tell me of how Eddie would influence their lives as I would meet and talk with them a decade or more in the future. At this stage in my life, I would have no idea of my participation in rock music’s history as I inquired about making contact with Eddie Cochran. Asking if he was also a student at the Pasadena Playhouse, “yes, he could be” was the reply. It was suggested I could leave a note at the studio message center for him. I scribbled a make shift letter introducing myself and suggested that if Eddie was attending the playhouse we could share a ride to classes there. I had posed a similar question to Sal Mineo, who had accepted my offer and I reasoned the same might be true for Eddie Cochran. I folded the note and wrote his name on the back of the paper, handing it to the clerk across the counter at the message center. I had my answer sooner than I thought.
Returning to my car and heading west down Santa Monica Boulevard, I turned on the radio to hear KMPC’s Johnny Grant introducing Sittin’ in the Balcony” by Eddie Cochran. I was confused, this singer was not the same person I heard singing “Twenty Flight Rock”, I thought. Turning up the volume, this voice sounded more like Dean Martin than a rock artist.
Not more than a week later, I received a telephone call from Eddie’s mother, Alice Cochran, inviting me to meet Eddie at his home in Bell Gardens, south of Los Angeles. Explaining Eddie had been spending long hours in the studio, sometimes not getting home until sunrise, she suggested I come to visit at eleven o’clock on the following Saturday morning.
I’d never heard of, much less been too Bell Gardens, but to assure I could arrive on time I got up early and left Santa Monica at eight o’clock for my drive south. Surprisingly, I arrived in Bell Gardens at nine, found the Cochran home a few minutes later and then found myself trying to find something to do for the two hours before our eleven o’clock get together. Finding a nearby restaurant I had breakfast and coffee, and coffee and still some more coffee, sat in the car reading the paper and listened to the radio until it was time for my visit to take place. I timed my arrival almost perfectly as my car gilded to a curbside parking place alongside the Cochran house, a light greenish/yellow home, with big shade trees on a corner lot.
Stepping up to the large cement slab entrance area, I raised my hand to knock as the door partially cracked open with a diminutive lady’s glasses peering through the opening holding a finger to her lips…sshhh, “he’s not up yet”, she smiled. As I offered to come back later, she opened the door wider, saying, “Oh no, come on in, he’ll be up pretty soon, I’m sure”. Entering, she turned to a much larger lady who extended her hand in welcome, saying, “I’m Gloria, Eddie’s sister” and hanging on to Gloria, a preschool sized red headed little boy was introduced as “little Ed”, leading me to surmise he was Eddie’s son. Correcting the assumption, Mrs. Cochran offered her own hand to shake saying, “No, no, he’s Gloria’s boy and I’m Eddie’s mom, Alice.” She motioned toward the living room couch suggesting, “Have a seat, “Johnnie, tell me all about yourself, where are you from, she began, “when is your birthday, your favorite food, what kind of music do you like”? In rapid fire a friendly grilling was delivered me as she obviously wanted to know as much as possible before I earned an introduction to her son. Both she and Gloria smiled approvingly with each answer, “You’re a Libra, when were you born, what date? October 9th I replied, as she responded with a glance to Gloria, arching her eyebrows saying, “on my”.
Pretending not to notice, out of the corner of my eye I could see someone in a white house robe at the kitchen stove pouring coffee. Looking in the same direction Alice said, “Eddie’s up” as he entered the room carrying a cup, pausing to take a sip before offering his hand in welcome. Alice interrupted, “Eddie this is Johnnie Rook” and you’ll never guess when his birthday is”. “Same as mine?” he guessed. “Close, his is on the ninth and he loves cornbread and beans” she laughed and continued, “Eddie was born on October 3rd and his favorite is cornbread and beans too”. Patting his unruly, uncombed hair down on his head and reaching for a cigarette to lit, he answered in a surprisingly deep voice, “well that’s a start”.
He was several inches shorter than me and his voice sounded as though he was just getting over a bad cold. Clearing it, he blamed the hoarseness on many hours in recent studio work. Gloria added, “Yes but he loves it, he’d rather be there than almost anywhere”. Alice corrected, “Sept’ maybe the desert huh honey” as he half heartedly nodded in agreement. Gloria asked, “have you been up there?” “Up where”? I asked.
Eddie chimed in, “Nope I reckin’ he ain’t been there yet”? All three began to educate me on the beauty of the southern California desert as I answered I had always thought the desert was just sand and sun. Taking another sip of coffee, Eddie stood and pointing his cup toward the kitchen motioned me to follow into his bedroom. As we passed through the kitchen he glanced at a stack of clean coffee cups in a draining rack, saying “grab some coffee man”. “No thanks”, I’ve already had my quota for the day” I replied.
The window blinds were still drawn blotting out the daylight and I adjusted my vision as Eddie motioned me to join him in sitting on the edge of his bed. He leaned forward to pull a folding chair with a tape recorder sitting hap hazard on it and began rewinding a tape at fast speed explaining it was the fruit of his endeavors from the previous night’s studio work. As he propped himself up against a pillow resting against the bed’s headboard, “See what ya think of this” he said, inhaling another deep hit from his cigarette. My attention was glued to the contents on the tape as Eddie stared at me for any response. After listening to four selections he reached to stop the tape recorder asking, “what da you think man? I gave a positive reaction to three of the selection’s , before Eddie interrupted, “how bout the second cut?” Explaining I liked the instrumental but it didn’t grab me like the other three, Eddie smiled and for the first time I heard what was to become a familiar part of Eddie Cochran…his Amos and Andy impressions. “I don’t know brotha, but I think yer right”. Standing up he shook his cigarette pack at me, “smoke” he said, “Sure” I answered, as he clicked his lighter to fire up my “fag”.
Alice entered the room with a coffee pot as Eddie leaned toward her extending his cup for a refill. “Morning fuel”, he said with a smile as Alice turned to me saying, “did you want some Johnnie”. Before he could answer I said, “Sure” as Alice turned returned to the kitchen for a cup and Eddie looked at me challenging, “you think Shrimpers coffee is better than mine”? “Shrimper” I questioned, “Yeh, that’s her given name, her real name is mama”. Reentering the bedroom carrying a cup for me Alice added, “who’s given name”, grinning in delight Eddie replied, “why yer’s mama”. “And who gave it to me darling” asked Alice. “You’re looking at him mama” said Eddie prompting Alice to reach out encasing him in a hug.
Changing into street clothes Eddie said he needed to replace a broken guitar string and I suggested we take my car, Eddie agreed surprising me saying “I don’t drive man”. It would only be a short distance to the Bell Gardens Music Center, where we where greeted by the lone clerk, “Hey Ed’erd, how ya doin” and again the Amos in Eddie came from his mouth, “Doin’ jes fine Kingfish”. It was obvious Eddie was a regular as he went about helping himself.
Returning to his house Eddie asked about my work week and did it allow for me to join him the following week at the studio. Explaining I had two days open, he gave me directions to Liberty records on LaBrea Ave. in Hollywood, right across from Big Tiny Naylor’s drive inn restaurant. We pulled up in front of the house in time for Eddie to introduce me to Gloria’s husband, Red Julson, who was busy tidying up his traveling lunch wagon truck that supplied sandwiches, soup, soft drinks and candy bars to hungry factory workers on break. As Eddie began to help empty some of the water from the melting ice trays into the gutter of the curb, he accidentally spilled some of the contents on himself, creating a wet spot starting just below his waist and down his pant leg. Red broke into a broad smile with Eddie’s disgust registering a “Damn it” as he attempted to brush some of the wetness away before heading to the front door of the house. Rushing past his mother in the kitchen on his way to his bedroom he said, “sorry shrimper, I just couldn’t hold it”, giving her the impression he had an embarrassing mishap.
Alice caught on immediately as she registered a fake look of horror with her eyes widening and her mouth dropping open in disbelief. I began to understand this constant game she and Eddie would play, they had a very special relationship with Shrimper always on the receiving end of his humor and loving every minute of it.
Besides Eddie, the Cochran residence was home to Gloria, Red and their son “little Ed”, as well as Eddie’s mother and father, Frank and Alice. Eddie was treated like royalty by his mother and sister as they handled his fan mail and attempted to deliver his every wish.
Eddie was the pride of the ladies in the house but both Frank and Red seemed slightly envious with the special treatment he received. However, it wasn’t something they were allowed to discuss within ear shot of Alice or Gloria.
Returning from work, Frank, without saying a word would set his empty lunch box on the kitchen counter and slowly pass through the living room on his way to a bedroom where he stayed until called to dinner. He was a quiet man, almost totally withdrawn from the family as he seldom commented on anything. He wasn’t angry, he just seemed very bored with his life and realized it was best to just keep quite around the females in the family.
When Red wasn’t pedaling goodies to hungry factory workers from the back of his truck he was parked in front of the Cochran home stocking and cleaning the traveling lunch wagon preparing it for the next days run. He did volunteer his views, often commenting on Eddie’s inability to make a financial contribution to the expenses of the family. His disgust was usually aimed at Eddie’s manager, Jerry Capehart, who Red had little use for and could not understand why Eddie’s career wasn’t paying off more. “When’s all of this gonna mean something” he’d say as Gloria would glare disapprovingly at him. Of course, very little of this discontent would reach Eddie’s ears. I liked Red, he always made be feel welcome and he did what he could to make Eddie’s life better.
Red and Gloria’s son, Little Ed, was a shy preschooler who adored his uncle. Eddie would chase his red headed little nephew around the back of the house where the small boy would pretend to hide in a basement stairwell with Eddie playfully hunting him down pretending his out stretched pointing finger was the barrel of a gun shooting Little Ed, then blowing the smoke from the barrel adding, “Gotcha”.
On this first visit to the Cochran home, Alice asked, “you’re gonna be staying for dinner with us aren’t ya Johnnie”? Eddie answered for me, “Yes he is” as he entered the kitchen from his bedroom wearing dry slacks.
Even without me, the Cochran breakfast nock would have been a snug fit for the family. Eddie and I filled our plates and headed for his bedroom to eat and listen to a new Marty Robbins album. Being raised on “western music” as it was then called, we started with “I walk the Line” and “Hey Porter” by Johnny Cash, before switching to “Young Blood” by the Coasters. Eddie loved the Coasters as he sang along,
I saw her standin’ on the corner A yellow ribbon in her hair
I couldn’t stop myself from shoutin’, Look a-there! Look a-there! Look a-there!
Adding special emphasis on the “Look a-there, Look a-there! Little Richard was next, “I hear ya knockin’ but you can’t come in,” Eddie sang along with his face registered in expression, “That’s the best rock band in the business” he’d say more than once. Fats Domino wasn’t far behind in Eddie’s admiration. I asked Eddie what he thought of Elvis, “he’s the cat man”, he replied. Explaining I got to see Elvis in Long Beach on his first appearance in California, Eddie corrected me, “The Shrine was his first stop…then Long Beach”. It was the only time we ever spoke of Elvis. However, in the future Elvis and I talked at length about Eddie.
Hearing the name Elvis, Alice entered the bedroom asking, “did I hear that naughty word in here”? Eddie smiled and with a negative shake of his head answered, “Now Shrimper, that’s uncalled for”. I’m certain Eddie had nothing but admiration for Elvis. “Beans and cornbread next weekend Johnnie”, she baited me as I looked at Eddie shaking his head yes and replied, “I’ll be here”.
Thinking it was about time for me to head home to Santa Monica, I stood and stretched as Eddie fired up another cigarette and followed me to the living room with Alice interrupting my departure, “sit for awhile” motioning to the couch. I commented how much I enjoyed their hospitality as Alice began to explain Eddie’s early career. “He learned to play guitar all by himself” she said. “His older brother Bill gave him his first guitar” as Eddie interrupted, “Don’t forget Bob”. Alice continued, “Well yes honey, Bob did teach you some chords, but you did most of it yourself”. Thinking that Hank Cochran was still another brother, I asked, “What about Hank”, as a smile of dismissal came on her face she explained, “Hank isn’t relation, he just had the same last name and was quite a bit older than Eddie.” Breaking into a giggle she added, “They sure covered the ground together though”, as she looked at Eddie, who didn’t bother to respond.
Hank Cochran, would gain fame as an excellent song writer in the years ahead. Eddie had dropped out of high school and toured California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and into the Midwest and South into Texas with Hank as the Cochran Brothers. Hank did most of the singing and Eddie played lead guitar and sang harmony. “Cause his voice was changing” added Gloria. Not missing a beat, Alice said, “well he really got some of his first experience right here at the American Legion.”, “Where he and Bob Bull played,” Gloria added. An embarrassing grin came on Eddie’s face as he stood and motioned me toward the front door, “that’s enough,” he said. Alice couldn’t stop, her eyes twinkling in pride she dared me to answer, “Now tell me Johnny, who’s best, Elvis or Eddie? More embarrassment from Eddie as he pushed me through the door to the outside and we walked to my car parked on the side street along side the house.
I turned to shake hands as Eddie repeated the directions to Liberty Records where we would meet again during the week. I reached at his shirt pocket for a cigarette and bid goodbye to my new friend as he continued, “it’s a light grey stucco building”. I nodded showing I understood and started the car, turning on the radio to Chuck Berry’s “School Day” prompting Eddie to join in, “Dropped the coin right into the slot” he sang as I slowly drove away smiling.
Pulling up to park in the small Liberty lot I could see Eddie standing on an outside entrance to the 2nd floor of the building on a fire escape. He motioned for me to take the short cut, not bothering to enter through the main entrance. Taking steps two at a time I reached the top as Eddie greeted me, “Howdy Andy”, in his best Amos and Andy imitation. Pressing his hand to my back ushering me into the hallway of the studio, then turning to wave at two guys arriving in the parking lot below. “That’s Don and Phil” he said and motioned for them to follow my path up the fire escape. I walked ahead inside to view the studio and the three or four musicians behind the large glass window, turning toward Eddie as he introduced me to the Everly Brothers. The three of them chatted for a few minutes before Eddie excused himself and they departed down the same staircase to the parking lot below.
As I walked into the control room, Eddie continued into the studio and through the microphone introduced me Jerry Capehart who was sitting behind the control board, “Jerry, say hello to Johnnie Rook”. Shaking hands with Jerry, who arose from his chair only partially, the second person behind the board nodded and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Ted”. Picking up his guitar from a stand in the studio, Eddie practiced a riff or two and then looking at the others began to count down…a one, a two, as the studio musicians joined in and Eddie began singing “Let me tell ya bout a girl I know”, it was the Ray Charles classic picked to be a cut in his album “Singing to my Baby”. Eddie stopped abruptly and looking through the studio glass at Capehart said, “that’ll be fine man with some sweetening”. Jerry answered, “yeh the fiddles will make it”.
Several minutes went by with Eddie running through some riffs on his guitar and then stopping to take a swallow from a whiskey bottle. Letting the ingredients trickle down his throat, I’d later learn it was a mixture of honey and whiskey, used to sooth his strained vocal chords. He once again began to pick some chords on his guitar, then turning to the bass player he asked, “Ready Connie”? as they begin to play together. I’d later meet Connie Smith at the Cochran home where in introducing him as “Guybo”, Eddie would add with humor, “or Connie Smith if you’re the law”. This session would be to record “Tell me Why” and as he strained to hit the high notes he stopped and with a wink to me, took another swig from the bottle. Looking again at me he said, “medicine” with a grin.
Eddie star was beginning to shine brighter, but not bright enough financially. Sy Warnoker, Liberty’s owner, allowed Eddie to gain recording experience in the studio during those times it was not in use but promotion was still needed for radio airplay. Liberty Records was a struggling little label with hardly any of the muscle Elvis’ RCA records enjoyed. I offered to drop out of my Playhouse classes to go on the road promoting Eddie’s records but he said no until finally after three unsuccessful releases, he agreed. While Eddie believed the material Liberty was giving him to record was sub standard, Jerry Capehart encouraged him to continue to record it. I returned from two weeks on the road to hear Eddie and Jerry arguing over material. Eddie was insisting he could create better songs than those the label had given him to record. Eddie also wanted to record from a different studio than the one at Liberty. Jerry finally agreed and they began to use the studio at Gold Star. I could see a much more confident Eddie emerge from those sessions as he began to find a niche he was more comfortable with. He began to not only play guitar, but also experiment with other sounds, like using a card board box for a drum and to get a special effect began to do what he called overdub himself. I went to work at Liberty packing boxes of records for shipping to disc jockeys across the nation.
It wasn’t long before Eddie’s studio experimentation was taking him in a new direction and he began using studio B at Gold Star exclusively. The run down little studio off Santa Monica boulevard and Vine in Hollywood was a real favorite for Eddie. It would be where most of his music would be created, including the classic, “Summertime Blues”.
Gold Star may not have been as classy as the big major studio’s in town, but soon it became known as the studio where most of the rock artists wanted to record. Many artist would request Eddie be included in their sessions and he was happiest in the studio. Years later, I would grimace when finding out the historic Gold Star studio had been torn down to make way for a mini mall. I’ll never understand how that was allowed, the recording studio used by more artists than any other was destroyed without a word of complaint.
“Let’s go to lunch rookie,” Ross Badisariun tempted me to end my sweaty morning packing discs at Liberty Records. Ross recorded under the name of David Seville, creator of the Chipmunks and I counted him as a good friend in those early days. His little jazz band recorded “Armen’s Theme” with marginal success and he was a part time actor and song writer who had many helpful contacts in the motion picture business. The lunch invitation was well received by a hungry actor and it was always a pleasure having Ross as my host, his taste in restaurants was excellent. Entering the El Dorado in Hollywood, he tabled hopped twice dispensing the usual shop talk and then at Tennessee Ernie Fords table accepted an invitation to join him. I was impressed and captivated by the ole’ pea picker’s southern drawl and country charm. Having grown up a fan of Tennessee Ernie’s I found his charisma magnetic, not just for me but everyone in the restaurant. In my wildest dream I would never guess, he would be the person most responsible for my future. Asking me “what’s your game young man”, Ross interrupted saying I was an up and coming actor. Next question, “are you a dedicated actor, or just exploring”, I answered thus far it hadn’t taken me by storm and as I began to explain why, Ernie interrupted suggesting a career in radio would be his choice if he were a young man again. He explained further, how many radio announcers of that time were transferring their talents to television and predicted hundreds of new radio stations would be added to the dial in the immediate future, creating a shortage of announcers. I could hardly keep my mind on anything else for the remainder of our lunch as his
advice sparked me with excitement. Bitten by the radio bug, I began listening more to the voices of Joe Yokum, Earl McDaniel, Art LaBoe, Art Way, Peter Potter & Johnny Grant. I would repeat and I thought, often improve on the patter they delivered between the records. I began creating commercials to read from the newspaper and at least in my head fantasized being a disc jockey on KLAC, KMPC and the Mighty 690.
On one of our desert outings I told Eddie of my hopes of becoming a disc jockey, registering a frown of disbelief, he wasn’t overly convinced. Later though he would agree, but reminded me of the painful fact, I would have to get some experience elsewhere other than Los Angeles. I loved California and it would take some time for me to envision leaving this exciting paradise for the boring life in some distant town. However, I also knew I had some serious misgivings about pursuing a career as an actor. It just didn’t move fast enough for my taste and radio was immediate, plus all I could think of was how great it would be hearing that great music and getting paid for it. Ernie Ford’s suggestion was with me day and night, even in my sleep I dreamed of being a disc jockey. The lure finally caused me to bite the bullet and begin looking for a job in radio…in California. Almost immediately, I could see that Eddie was right, without a tape and a resume documenting my experience, no doors cracked, let alone opened in Los Angeles.
It was a few months later that Eddie expressed his frustration over an upcoming tour of Australia. He was booked to join Little Richard, Gene Vincent & Bill Haley, introducing rock and roll to the continent down under. Commercial jets had yet to be a part of the TWA air fleet and the much slower prop driven planes made for a long, long trip of at least twenty hours flying time, over mostly water. Having toured for several years already in his young life time, Eddie always grew depressed when approaching a trip, especially traveling so far away from home. He loved home and could have been satisfied just spending time in the studio experimenting with recording techniques. He had already been recognized by many experts as being a premiere guitar player and his “overdubbing” recording was considered revolutionary in an industry still in its infancy.
Eddie had telephoned saying “we have to go to the desert before I have to live out of that damn suitcase again”. Capehart had scheduled him to join the Biggest Show of Stars for 1957 immediately upon returning from the exhausting Australian trip.
In an attempt to cheer him up and take his mind off the up coming torture of the Australian tour, we headed to Hesperia and the desert. Bob Bull, who recorded as Bob Denton on Dot Records, Eddie and me behind the wheel paying tribute to Fats Domino’s
“Sick n’ Tired”…“Oo Baby, Whatcha Gonna Do”, we sang at the top of our voices.
Eddie’s staples for a trip to the desert, beer, cigarettes, whiskey, his long barrel six shooter and a friend or two was all he needed for a good time. Eddie seldom wore levi’s except on the these desert trips. A levi jacket and his beat up cowboy hat topped off the fashion statement for these outings.
This particular desert trip will always be remembered as the one when Eddie “went hunting”, or was it “rustling”? As usual I was driving, Bob was in the back seat and Eddie was as he would say, “ridin’ shotgun” in the front passenger seat. As the driver I laid off the alcohol, except for a beer or two. I never witnessed Eddie ever drinking at home, but during recreational times away from his family, he had an amazing ability for consuming beer. It was not unusual for him to clear a dozen cans in one hot afternoon on the desert. The term desert is misleading, this one with sage brush, a tree or two where ever they could exist and some giant boulders here and there.
As I drove along with the car radio blasting away suddenly Eddie yelled, “Whoa Andy, stop this wagon”. Screeching to a halt, Eddie ordered, “back this stage up to that rock back there”. I thought it was a stop to release some of the liquid he had swallowed, so Bob and I stayed in the car as Eddie opened the door with his pistol in hand and departed from our vision behind a giant boulder. A few minutes later over the sound of the radio
Bob and I where startled to hear the sound of gunshots…two of them, from where Eddie had disappeared. Fear raced through us as we hurried from the car just in time to see Eddie coming from behind the boulder blowing the smoke from his pistols barrel, with a grin on his face saying, “I think ol’ Ed’erd jest got us some beef boys”.
He explained during the release of his body fluid he had been startled by a yearling steer and “for my own safety boys, I had to protect myself”. Leading us to the carcass, Eddie persuaded us it would be a shame to waste all that beef and instructed me to return to the car and prepare the trunk for loading and transporting it to his brother Bob’s house.
Steaks and hamburger was plentiful that fall and winter in Bob Cochran’s home but one must pay for such actions. I didn’t know for many years but only recently did Eddie’s nephew, Bobby Cochran tell me that the burial of the carcass had to be dug up from his back yard and moved to a distant burial location as the summer heat delivered a terrible stench due to having been buried too shallow.
I kept quiet about the hunting trip, not mentioning it to his mother until at least a dozen years after Eddie’s death. Her surprise and response was, “Oh Johnnie, you kids, how could you let him do that”. Eddie could still do no wrong to her way of thinking.
Drugs were not a part of our lives in the 50’s and considering today’s teen activity’s we were tame. We did have strip poker parties with giggling young ladies eager to loose hand after hand to Eddie, who seldom was forced to discard more than his boots. Eddie was always a gentleman, seldom ever using profanity and he was a magnet for young females.
I decided to sell my car for $180 to allow me the money I would need to relocate and began my new career in radio. Traveling by Trailways bus lines instead of Greyhound would be my decision because the fare was cheaper.
Having already announced my plans, Alice telephoned asking me to come to dinner saying she was planning “yours and Eddie’s favorite meal”, as a send off for both of us, me heading east to points unknown and Eddie west to his Australian tour.
Thinking I’d be lucky enough to find employment in Salt Lake City I tried to explain I didn’t expect to be that far away and after a short period gaining experience, I would be returning to southern California in no time. “Well, just the same, you better come and see Eddie before you both leave”, coaxed Alice.
The weather was hot in late summer, sweat was pouring off of Eddie’s sister Gloria, as she stood ironing shirts in the kitchen preparing for his Australian departure. Alice was in his bedroom packing his suitcase as I arrived in late afternoon. Eddie wasn’t home but expected to return soon from the Bell Gardens Music Center, where he had gone to pick up some extra strings for his guitar. Alice’s smile of welcome turned into a worrisome frown and she hugged me saying, “Its not easy Johnnie”, as she registered her concern of Eddie leave for a trip that would take him “half way around the world”. Her lips tightened and tears came to her eyes as she excused herself and registered a nervous laugh, “I’m just a worry wart”. Gloria shook her head in agreement and handed Alice
a freshly ironed shirt to be packed.
Eddie’s mother complained he would not be home for his 19th birthday but at least we could celebrate our birthdays together, his on the 3rd and mine on the 9th of October. He would be catching a flight out of LAX the following day. Alice apologized for not being able to serve the promised beans and cornbread but Gloria said a dinner of fried chicken should satisfy us somewhat. Entering the front door with his brother in law Red, Eddie offered his usual greeting, “Howdy dere’ Andy”, as Red offered a handshake.
Complaining about Eddie’s up coming schedule Red brought a silence to the room as he blamed Jerry Capehart for Eddie having to join a tour of the states at about the same time we would be returning from Australia. “Jerry doesn’t give a damn, he doesn’t have to go”, said Red as Gloria starred a disapproving glare in his direction.
Attempting to put a positive face on this trip, Eddie seemed in good spirits when in the company of his mother and Gloria, but as I was about to leave for my home, with an expression of exasperation on his face, he stated, “straight ahead man, I’ll see ya, I just don’t know when”.
Three days later I was climbing the steps to the second floor offices of KALL in downtown Salt Lake City, hoping to impress the program director, “Daddy Flo” that I be given my first job in radio. He listened to my energetic pitch, but said I would need experience in a smaller market. He knew of no openings anywhere but suggested I try Denver where he explained several top 30 radio stations were located. I hurried to the depot to catch a late afternoon bus east to Denver. The program director at KIMN in Denver, Grahame Richards, was considered one of the nation’s innovators of top 30 radio. He was cordial but again I received the same suggestion, gain experience in a smaller market but keep him informed of my growth in the business because he was creating several pop music radio stations in distant cities. Richards aimed me in the direction of Scottsbluff, Nebraska where he had been told of an opening at KOLT there. Arriving in Scottsbluff late at night, I slept on a bus station bench and then waited until the program director would arrive late the following morning. Sitting in the lobby of the station waiting, the receptionist told me the job had been filled two days earlier and the program director had called in sick and would not be at the station until the following Monday. It being a Friday, I decided not to waste what few dollars I had left and after telephoning KNEB and being told they had no openings, decided to catch a bus to return home to Chadron, one hundred miles north.
Arriving in Chadron unexpectedly on an early Saturday morning, I walked the 15 blocks to my parent’s home where mother Della was delighted to see me despite being awaken by my ring of the doorbell. My father wasn’t that pleased, notifying me that very afternoon “Don’t think you’re going to lay around here living off me”. As I began to explain I was going to try a career in radio, he ridiculed me saying that was ridiculous and I should consider something more suiting like a job greasing steam locomotives at his place of employment, the C&NW railroad. But he cautioned, “I doubt they’ll even let you join the union, do you have any money for the entrance fee”? Attempting to cool him down, mother Della interrupted to ask if I wanted to go grocery shopping with her.
Checking in with the local radio station, KCSR, my disc jockey friend there, Freeman Hover, told me about a possible opening at KASL in New Castle, Wyoming. Telephoning the station, I was advised they did have an opening but if I was interested I should make the more than one hundred mile drive to apply promptly, as they had several applicants and would be making a decision within a few days.
Ten days after departing Los Angeles, I landed my first job in radio at KASL. The station offered programming to the 2,000 citizens of New Castle and about thirty miles of range land with all the cattle therein. Roy Marsh, the manager of the station suggested I stand behind him in the studio for a day before taking to the air myself. I assured him I had some limited experience, when truthfully I had never been on the air before. I recall hearing him introduce the mid day house wife program just once and for the next several months I repeated the same introduction, “It’s ten am and transcribed, time for ladylendanear…leading into the next musical selection, that came from an old World disc, a large three foot wide red vinyl record that required the needle be placed on the inside groove to start, just the opposite of a regular phonograph recording. These discs would need its own turntable, a heavy cast iron contraption with wheels allowing it to be moved to a location nearer the control board. I hated the music, a very tinny sounding music of the 1930’s and 40’s, all from orchestra’s of that era. Embarrassingly, after several weeks, I was discovered the name of the mid day show was not, ladylendanear , but “Lady lend an ear”. .
I arrived at work to began my announcing duties at 9am and worked until
10pm six days a week. I looked forward to the 8pm to 10pm House of Wax program where I was allowed to play the rock hits from the Billboard top 30. Race music hadn’t yet made it to all white Wyoming. Even if it had, we received very few records from those small record companies that distributed that music. Elvis was permitted but Little Richard covers by Pat Boone would be the version aired in the farm and ranch area’s of America.
Eddie called while on tour from Cincinnati, Ohio. He was traveling in a crowded bus and was exhausted. He said that while on the plane flying over the Pacific, Little Richard had a conversion and announced he was giving up rock n’ roll for the preaching of the gospel.
That upset Eddie, he loved Little Richards music and while he had no problem with Richard entering the ministry, he would sure miss his musical contribution. He wondered what would happen to Little Richards band and chuckled as he announced, “Lady’s and Gentlemen, it’s Eddie Cochran with Little Richards band”. I said, “no, yer kiddin” as he laughed.
Within six months, I learned a new more powerful radio station would be broadcasting from Hot Springs, South Dakota. Moving from KASL to KOBH would mean an increase of ten dollars a week. Eighty dollars a week and reduced hours, from 6am til’ 6pm, allowed me to have some night life. It wasn’t California, but located in the foothills of the Black Hills, Hot Springs, with the influx of tourism in the summer months was a happening place.
However, I soon found out that opening up the station at 6am meant I would have to arrive in enough time to prepare a full ten minute newscast to begin the broadcast day. Also, to ready the stations broadcast transmitter the filaments needed a full twenty minutes of warm up time, before broadcasting. With my alarm going off at 4am and a 5am arrival at the station, it wasn’t long before I discovered my night life wasn’t all I had hoped for. Work laws and unions were unheard of for small town radio stations, so upon finding out I would not be paid for the time it took me to prepare, was a disappointment. I would always think of my first hour at work as a free hour.
The second hour required a ten minute newscast from the Intermountain Network, featuring the legendary Frank Hemmingway, who’s ad lib commercial for his sponsor, Folgers coffee was temptation I would have to live with. The owner of the station, Fred Walgren, had strict rules for the preservation of equipment. No food or beverage was allowed in the studio, for fear it would spill on equipment causing a short in the control board. Preceding tape recorders, our record unit was a wire spool recorder. It took practice doing a live show on the air and threading or rewinding that wire recorder and even more talent to record an upcoming program off the network for playback later and still do a disc jockey show. While on the air, I also answered the telephone, took messages and ripped news from the wire services, editing it for an up coming newscast. I reasoned, who the hell has enough time to eat or drink anyway?
Hemingway was followed by fifty minutes of polka music with birthday, anniversary and special occasions announced. It took awhile before I could introduce the polka king, Whoopie John Wil-fhart, without laughing. Lawrence Welks polka band was a big favorite, along with Frankie Yankovic and his polka orchestra.
Fred and the station manger, Del Brandt, would relieve me for one hour at noon each day as they teamed up for the noon news block. KOBH was on the outskirts of town and I would rush in to town for lunch at a local restaurant where Minnie, the cook, would have my meal waiting for me.
Each afternoon, just as school was letting out, Teen Time Tunes was programmed. One hour, five days a week, we programmed the hits of the day. I was told to “lay off that jungle bunny music”, and when I forgot the rule, glares of disapproval would come from the owner. I soon realized that if I wanted to program Fats Domino or Chuck Berry, I must intersperse them with Tony Bennett or Doris Day. I was a little shocked to learn Johnny Mathis was considered a negative but Nat King Cole wasn’t.
It was a period when country artists Stonewall Jackson, Hank Snow, Johnny Horton, Hank Locklin, the Browns, Don Gibson, Faron Young, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Ray Price and Jim Reeves were big hit country artist with cross over pop hits on the best selling surveys of Billboard and the Cashbox top 30. Approaching the area on tour, they would be able to hear the station for several hundred miles in all directions. Soon, they all stopped by the station to be interviewed by KOBH’s only disc jockey…me.
I would not accept any financial rewards of presenting these artists. Our nation’s congress was just beginning to prosecute big city disc jockeys for accepting money to play records. It was called payola and I wanted to avoid any question of being involved in any illegalities I helped raise thousands of dollars for the local chamber of commerce by presenting recording stars looking for a place to perform as they traveled by car from Omaha to Denver, or Denver to Minneapolis. Listeners from Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota began to look forward to many of the aforementioned singers in concert.
Jim Reeves was a big favorite with the station manager when he stopped by to be interviewed and in response to my quizzing him about this new rock n’ roll music, said, “Everyone to their own poison”.
Patsy Cline visited with a tape of her singing “Sweet Dreams” asking if I would play it so she could hear it on her car radio while heading north to Rapid City. She explained it would be a great way for her to judge the mix of the song, to hear how it would sound coming from a radio speaker.
Al Martino, Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, Jimmy Jones and Paul Anka telephoned to be interviewed on the air. Of course Eddie Cochran telephoned to see how my new career was going, allowing me to interview him twice on the air. Sadly, no recordings of those interviews were made because the station’s only recorder had been borrowed by an advertising salesman to allow a client to hear a proposed commercial.
KOBH was at 580 on the dial and could be heard in at least five states. Eddie had asked why I didn’t change my air name to a more believable Johnnie Rowe and I agreed by doing so would end my having to explain the last name of Rho. The station gained a large audience with the Hooper ratings showing 58% of the listening audience in the Black Hills area. I spent three weeks broadcasting daily from a platform anchored on top of telephone polls gathering money for the Brainard Indian School. A goal of $30,000, a lot of money in those days, was reached before I was allowed to come down from my perch after more than two weeks time. The summer promotion did provide me a sleeping bag and a tent for shelter. Food traveled up to me via a pulley rope and my only communication came from a telephone and a microphone extension to the studio for broadcasting.
Home was a rental one bedroom mobile home in a trailer park. It was a cold snowy day in early February of 1959 when Alice Cochran telephoned and asked if I could fly out to be with Eddie, he was in deep depression mourning the death of his good friend Buddy Holly. A single engine plane with Buddy, Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper, had crashed just a few miles outside of Mason City, Iowa. They were part of a tour, traveling by bus that had been breaking down and in need of sleep they decided to rent a small plane to fly them ahead in enough time for them to get some much needed rest before the next show. The tragedy hit Eddie especially hard as he and Buddy had formed a strong friendship during the Australian tour the previous year.
I left immediately for Rapid City to catch a flight to Denver and on to California. Red Julson picked me up at the Los Angeles airport and as we drove to the house in silence I only remember his saying, “Eddie’s pretty torn up Johnnie”. I shook my head in understanding.
This would be a gloomy visit to the Cochran home, not at all like the fun filled days in the past. Alice met me at the door and without saying anything reached up to give me a hug and a kiss I entered the house. She just shook her head in distress with tears in her eyes and as we walked into the living room Eddie appeared advancing from his bedroom, offering a combined handshake and hug saying “good to see ya man”. We walked silently into his bedroom and as I starred out the window to the outside world, Eddie picked up his guitar and began to quietly pick on the strings with a pained frown on his face. After several minutes, Eddie was standing behind me reaching for my shoulders to turn me around facing him and said, “if anything like this happens to me, promise me you’ll take care of Shrimper,” ok? I assured him I would and did honor that pledge for the remainder of her life in the thirty plus years ahead.
Alice poked her head in the bedroom door and inquired if I was hungry and as I answered I wasn’t, Eddie laid his guitar down on the bed and motioned for me to follow him outside. It was nice feeling the warmth of the California sun but a cloud clearly shadowed Eddie’s mind as he stopped to gaze blindly at some flowers. His back was turned to me but I could see he was quietly crying. As I approached him and placed my arm around his neck he turned away and wiped with his hand wiped the tears from his face.
That evening, brother Bob Cochran arrived and I noticed an improvement in Eddie’s behavior as he embraced and smiled at seeing his favorite brother. Bob looked at me and said, “how you been disc jockey John”. It was the first I had seen Bob since the change in my career and Eddie picked up on the theme by remarking “Disc Jockey John ain’t playin’ enough Eddie Cochran records”. The humor was a welcome relief and I thought I would help it along by saying something to the effect that I only played the hits. Bob responded, “your job is to make them hits boy!”.
Coming from another area of the house, sister Gloria interrupted asking how my flight was, encouraging Eddie to add, “Flight, I didn’t know they had airplanes out there in Indian country”. I don’t recall seeing Frank during this visit but I believe it was this trip that I met Eddie’s sister Pat and her husband Hank as they stopped by briefly.
It would seem my arrival had broken some of the gloom that brought me to the Cochran home and after two days, Alice managed a limited smile as I said it was time for me to return to South Dakota. Tears came to her eyes as I hugged her and Eddie goodbye and Red took me to the airport for the return trip home.
Several months later, Eddie called asking if I would be interested in presenting him in concert. Of course my listening audience was way ahead of the nation in being Eddie Cochran fans, with his recordings a regular feature on my radio show. We agreed he would appear in both Hot Springs, South Dakota and Chadron, Nebraska. Having just completed a survey of the record stores I was pleased that Eddie had been voted on top of the popularity polls of the record buying public. Now as he planned on appearing, I had a trophy made up announcing Eddie as the area’s number one singer and Keys to the City of Chadron and Hot Springs would be given to him upon his arrival. Even better, the Nebraska appearance would be on his 21st birthday, so his fans would present Eddie with a giant birthday cake. Little did we know, it would sadly be Eddie’s last.
Both concerts were sold out, as fans from all throughout the area came to celebrate Eddie’s birthday by attending the concert. The shows were in top form as Eddie wearing those white bucks, with their tongue hanging out for comfort, put on great shows. He was delighted not only to see me but in appreciation of the welcome I had orchestrated for him.
After both appearances we had some time alone where we laughed heartily of past experiences and talked about the future. Eddie encouraging me to “take your act to a larger town”, he thought Denver and Salt Lake City would be excellent stepping stones for my some day returning to Los Angeles. We laughed in unison how an advancement in my career would improve his too, as Eddie said, “We both need to move up some boy”. We toasted our friendship with swig’s of alcohol that surfaced from a bottle that came from out of nowhere. It would be our last time together as Eddie told me about an up coming tour of England planned for early the following year. I thought how unusual for Eddie to be actually looking forward to touring. He actually seemed to be looking forward to traveling abroad to the UK, just the opposite reaction he demonstrated for his tour of Australia. His excitement of this trip was fueled by his being one of the very first American rock acts to appear there. He also told me about a new all black leather stage outfit he was planning to wear, that would break apart in pieces if grabbed by fans. Eddie joked, he was debating about wearing anything underneath the leather, “can you imagine the attention that would get”, he said.
Bidding him goodbye, Eddie walked me to my car and reminded me of our plans for seeing each other in the following summer when I would vacation in California. As we hugged goodbye, I kidded that I had every intention of actually being employed in radio in Los Angeles by then. His final words to me were, “You’ll be staying out at the house with us, won’t ya”? He was so proud of the new home he had just purchased for his parents in Buena Park, and was looking forward to my visit and being his guest. I assured him that would be the case and I waved goodbye to Eddie ….for the final time.
In mid march Alice telephoned me saying Eddie was having a very successful tour of England. “The bad part is Eddie’s being held over for longer than he thought”. I inquired about his health and learned his voice was scratchy from all the singing. I remember thinking he probably had his bottle of whiskey and honey handy. She hoped he would be home for Easter but didn’t think it would happen now that he was being held over by the promoters. “I guess they just love him over there Johnnie”, “But”, she added, “He’ll be ready for the desert, you can bet that”. I told her to tell Eddie I was proud of his successful tour of England and was looking forward to hearing from him once he returned to the states.
The ringing of the phone woke me on Easter Sunday morning, my brother Charles was working a weekend shift at KOBH and he begin, “Did you know Cochran died”, Momentarily stunned, I told him to stop being smart as he repeated, “No man Eddie got killed in a car wreck in England”. I asked him to repeat and upon hearing the words again, I hung up the phone and with tears streaming down my cheeks began to leaf through my address book to locate the new phone number to Eddie’s home in Buena Park. Dialing in desperation, the line was busy but within a few minutes I could hear the ring and Gloria answering a weak “Hello”. “Is it true”, I asked without identifying myself. “Yes Johnnie, I’m afraid so” she replied as her sobbing increased and Red came on the line. “Johnnie can you come out?” he asked, I answered, “I’m on my way Red” and hung up the phone. During a stop over in Denver, I telephoned Red again to let him know my arrival time in Los Angeles. As usual, he would pick me up at the airport.
Red was waiting at the gate as I arrived, we shook hands as he grabbed to carry my suitcase and we walked silently to his car in the parking lot. Eddie’s body had not yet arrived from England, so it would be two days with the family living in utter disbelief that Eddie was gone before any funeral.
Alice broke into tears upon my entering the house and putting her arms around my waist, stood for several minutes weeping in silence. She led me into his bedroom and we both sat down on the bed as Alice asked, “It just doesn’t seem possible Johnnie, Eddie’s gone”. I comforted her before she stood, shaking her head and again stated her disbelief, “I worried something like this would happen”. I also arose from the bed and suddenly remembered my previous pledge to Eddie about looking after his mother should anything happen to him. I thought how strange Eddie would have had a premonition of his own death. I leaned down to hug her again and we walked together into the silence of the living room where we sat without saying anything for several minutes. The ringing phone broke the silence as Alice asked me to answer it. It was a call from the airline telling when we could expect Eddie’s body to arrive in Los Angeles. I repeated the information out loud for Alice and Red, who had entered the room, too hear.
Brother Bob arrived and immediately began placing blame on the driver of the car in which Eddie was being transferred to the airport in. Someone had told him the automobile apparently had a flat tire, resulting in the car lunging out of control. Bob was furious as he said the car must have been traveling to fast. Or, the driver must have been intoxicated. Gloria interrupted, “well we just don’t know what happened yet” as she suggested Bob stop talking about the tragedy in front of his mother.
Red and Bob met the flight Eddie’s body was on at the airport and accompanied the casket to the funeral home where they were first to view him. As they entered the house Bob said over and over, “it didn’t look at all like Eddie”. He either was hoping it wasn’t and all this was a bad dream, or angry at the funeral home in England. As a result, it was decided that a closed casket funeral should take place. Gloria volunteered to not attend the funeral so that someone would be on hand at home to answer the constantly ringing telephone. I interrupted and insisted she attend the funeral with the family and I would stay to answer the phone. Red asked if I would like to pay my last respects to Eddie with a private visit to the funeral home. I did and he drove me to the funeral home, where I had by then realized I would like to remember Eddie as I knew him, not by viewing his remains. So, I sat quietly for the better part of an hour besides Eddie’s closed casket remembering the days of the past. Red entered the room and putting his hand on my shoulder, asked if I was ready to leave. I stood and placed both of my hands on the casket saying goodbye to my friend Eddie, before turning and walking from the room.
Eddie was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Cypress, where his brother Bob and his father Frank would soon join him. Frank Cochran, it seemed to me, had always been silently despondent. Bob obviously was heartbroken and began to drink heavily as if each gulp was a tribute to his young brother Eddie.
Passing Thru © 2003 John H. Rook
All Rights Reserved