Note: The following interview with Wayne Cochran was conducted at TGI Friday’s in Hialeah, Fla. All biographical details were provided by him, and his actual quotes are in italics.
Wayne Cochran was born in Thomaston, Ga., in 1939. His father was a mill worker, and at an early age, Wayne was determined to escape the drudgery of poverty in a small Georgia town.
I remember sitting in my fourth-grade class and studying world history. I was writing a paper, and I wrote my name at the top of the page. I looked around at all those kids I was growing up with and I thought, “These people are going to live, and die, and no one will ever know; but the people in these books, people will remember them, and one day I’ll get my name off the top of this paper and into one of those books….”
He dreamed of being a superhero. He wrapped towels around his neck and jumped out of trees, pretending he was Superman. His mom made him a Batman mask. His friends called him “The Dreamer.”
Although he didn’t become a superhero, he did discover that he had a talent for music. In 1955, he formed his first band and moved to Macon, Ga.
There, he became friends with another young man striving for musical success, Otis Redding. They played music together, they wrote songs, they dreamed.
Although he loved all kinds of music, through his friendship with Otis, Wayne was exposed to rhythm-and-blues and soul music.
I liked rock ’n’ roll, I like anything that is exciting and intense, but the intensity of R&B is much more than rock ’n’ roll. Rock ’n’ roll can be sweet and pretty and fun, but soul music is about hurtin’, the vocals especially. The intensity of it … There’s just no comparison between “Go, Johnny, Go,” and “Gotta. Gotta, gotta have it.” It’s the gruffness of the voice—the strain, the intensity is 10 times, 10 times more. Nothing compares to it!
He stayed in Macon, cut a few records for some small labels, but nothing much happened. He also wrote a song based on a real-life tragedy that had happened to a girl he had known.
The song was “Last Kiss.” It should have made him a millionaire, but the music business was up to its usual tricks; the song was “borrowed” by a singer from Texas named J. Frank Wilson. Wilson had a monster hit with it, but due to “technicalities,” Wayne never saw a dime in royalties. (More about the song later.)
Although he wasn’t getting much airplay, Cochran was playing the Macon-area club circuit, so he decided to take his show on the road. He bought an old school bus for $500, hired a band, and Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders hit the highway.
Bright Lights, Big Hair
Sometime around ’63, ’64, I went to see James Brown at a rehearsal. I checked out his clothes and his hair, and man, I dug the way he looked … it reminded me of those Roman soldiers with those helmets you know. At the time I was wearing my hair like Elvis, only a little more exaggerated.
I wanted to have that glamour thing, like Gorgeous George or Marilyn Monroe. I remember reading a story about her getting off an airplane in a beige suit and getting into a beige Cadillac—her hair was even beige, and that just fascinated me.
When I got the idea for the hair, we were playing in Bossier City, La. There were these teenagers that played this club and they had a band called It and Them. They had a real good guitar player and keyboard man. The club had these stage lights that you’d hit with your toes to change the colors … And two of these guys were albinos, and every time the lights would change, their hair would change colors. I thought, “Man, if only I could get my hair platinum like that, and then with that curl hangin’ down like James Brown had …” (The “albinos” he mentions were, indeed, Johnny and Edgar Winter.)
We left Bossier City and went to Muncie, Ind., to a place called Woodbury’s 67 Club, on Highway 67 outside of town. I met a hairdresser up there, and talked him into doing my hair like that. The first time we did it, it came out strawberry blond. But we finally kept doin’ it, it came out platinum, I hired him, and took him on the road with me, so I had a hairdresser with me 365 days a year.
The first night we hit the stage like that, the owner thought I was totally crazy. That first week there, we didn’t do so well, and they were talking about firing me. It had taken me six months to put this band together; we had a total of eight musicians including me. I had talked these guys into leaving their homes to go on the road, and I knew that if he fired us, it was all over. So I came up with an idea and the owner ’bout had a heart attack.
I had this emerald green suit that looked like silk [actually it was made out of furniture upholstery] and a satin cape with a red lining,, and half of the band had gold dinner jackets, and the other half had blue dinner jackets, which, by the way, was all we had [for outfits].
Well sir … I found out where the busiest restaurant in town was, where all the businessmen went for lunch. I got all the guys to put on their tuxedos, I got the hairdresser to go get a daytime formal tux outfit, and we called and made reservations for 10 people.
We get there, and the band walks in, right past the hostess, and forms a line on each side of the door. I walked in with my cape on, and the hairdresser following me.
We go to the table.
They all stood at attention till I sat down.
The hairdresser tells the waiter to bring my food to him first so he can taste it before I eat it.
I mean … you could hear the forks droppin’ all over the place. We had lunch, I stood up and went [clap, clap], and they all stood up again, at attention.
I walked through them and the hairdresser turned around and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, you have just had lunch with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, and they will be at the 67 Club tonight.” We went outside, pushed the bus to get it started and went by a music store and then back to the motel where we were staying four to a room. We rode by the club, and at 6 p.m., there was a line already. That night, the club was packed; you couldn’t get near the place.
He decided to keep us.
The White Knight of Soul (1965-1971)
It’s Saturday night at the Barn, a nightclub in Miami Beach, circa 1967, and the Barn is sold out.
In the audience is a mix of the young and old, some tourists who’ve heard about this guy, and—very often, after he has finished taping his own TV show—one of Wayne’s biggest fans, Jackie Gleason.
The band is top notch—six horn players and a churning rhythm section, blazing their way through “Night Train.” The lights dim, the spotlight hits center stage, and there stands a 6-foot 4-inch figure in an orange sharkskin suit, orange alligator-skin boots, and a 12-inch platinum pompadour that resembles a cross between a beehive and a space helmet. He is a one-man Aurora Borealis.
The music is raw, uncompromising, ass-kickin’ Georgia soul. No lame show tune medleys, no string of one-liners and bad impressions of Frank Sinatra—this cat ain’t playin’ around. In mid-song, he leaves the stage; and moans “When Something is Wrong With My Baby,” to a young coed who has completely forgotten about her date sitting next to her.
In the course of the evening, Cochran may even bust up a few things: glasses, tables, even a chair or two. By the time he’s done, the place is in pandemonium, and a sweat-drenched dreamer from Thomaston, Ga., has once again proven that he has the greatest live act on the club circuit.
That circuit took him from the Barn in Miami to the Flamingo and the International Hilton in Vegas, where Elvis came to see him and not only dug his act but sought Wayne’s advice on stage costuming.
That same circuit also took him back and forth across the country for countless gigs in-between; he once played 279 straight one-nighters without a day off.
For several years, all was fine, and then the road began to take its toll.
The ’60s had come and gone, soul music was giving way to disco, and Wayne still had not had much success in transferring the intensity of his live act to records.
The End Of The Line
He did a new record deal around ’71, and Epic, the label, wanted to re-invent his look and sound. No more uniforms; stop the choreography; lose the bouffant, etc.
He agreed to give it a try.
They cut an album, and two weeks after its release, the producer was fired. One of the first objectives of his replacement was to get rid of some old, weird guy named Cochran.
So our gigs started to fall off, I started drinking, doing lots of drugs, womanizing and finally it just all dried up. Then I had to have throat surgery. I thought I had cancer. My wife left—it just all fell apart. This was around ’72, ’73. I tried everything; we went back to the old show, uniforms and all. The crowds started coming back around, but I was whacked, gone, I owed tens of thousands to the I.R.S, I couldn’t even make enough to pay the penalties alone. I had no future, no home, everyone was telling me that I was diggin’ a hole, and there was no way out. [Begins to choke up] I would have traded places with a janitor just to be able to go fishin’ on a Saturday and have a life. My life was over, and I got to the point where I was going take my own life.
The night I was going to do it, I said, “You know, I could kill myself tonight or wait till tomorrow.” It was really weird, it was the only thing I still had control over, I was still the boss of that … But it’s real weird … I said, “I’m not going to try and talk myself into nothing. I’m not going to try and get myself to believe something that’s not true, because that’s what got me where I am.” I wouldn’t face the truth and look at this. I mean, I was afraid to think, because look where my thoughts had got me, look where my decisions had got me.
So how do I know the next thought won’t get me further down that road? That’s when I wrote the song “Circles In My Mind.”
He begins to sing softly:
People look at me, and 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 walk around in circles, and my heads’ bending low,
I got plenty of time to get there, but I got no place to go.
I gotta keep on walkin’, I will until I find,
A way to make a highway, from these circles in my mind.
I said to myself, “I am gonna go back and reassess my life, and I’m gonna see. If I could find a book … a book of instructions, then I’d know what to do. I’m gonna go back and be really objective and look at every decision like a third party … look at it like it was a movie. I’ll see if I can take the things that worked and use them, and the things that didn’t work and take them out, and see if that’ll make a difference.”
I started reading and studying “The Powers of Unconscious Mind” by Joseph Murphy, The Dali Lama, “The I Ch’ing,” “The Book of the Dead,” and I found stuff that I didn’t know, and found a lot of knowledge that started to give me hope, but sooner or later, I’d find something wrong with it and find some jive in there. And I’d throw it away.
“Rolling Stone” magazine wrote me up and called me: “Wayne Cochran, Rock ‘N Roll’s Egyptologist,” and then, “Wayne Cochran, White Knight, Jesus Freak.” I kept noticing that all these Eastern texts kept mentioning the Bible.
After about a year-and-a-half, things were getting a little better and I noticed all of these faiths keep using the Bible to validate themselves. So I thought, ”Why don’t I get me a Bible?” I stole a Bible from a hotel room in Austin, Texas. ’Course I found out later that I didn’t steal it ‘cause the Gideons put it there. I started reading it. I wasn’t trying to get to heaven. I couldn’t care less about it. I just … needed help right then!
I noticed there were formulas in the back: do this, this, this and this. Some of the things they told you to do seemed absurd, like trying to put kerosene on a fire to put it out, only this time I didn’t have nothin’ to lose, so why not?
I started doing exactly what it said.
Now I am not a Christian at this time; I didn’t believe in Jesus, but I would start doing what it said. In two or three weeks, or a month, in the strangest way, things would happen. It didn’t happen right away, but then I began to notice that this same book that was right about all these other things said that Jesus was the way. Well, it was right about everything else; and I used to think I’d found Aladdin’s lamp—this isn’t just about religion or going to church on Sunday. It worked. It was incredible; it was weird; it was awesome and it was real.
He continues: I was sitting in nightclubs after shows and I start talking about the Bible. Guys would say: “I don’t read that thing.” They’d say, “Well, I got this problem,” and I’d say, “Well, do this,” and they’d say, “Where’d you learn that?” and I’d say “The Bible.” I was sitting there leading people to the Lord, and I hadn’t accepted him myself.
Then in 1975, I heard about this place—Spirit Lake, Iowa. It was a northern resort. They were only open a couple months out of the year. We did the gig there, and after the show the bus wouldn’t start. Finally, the bus driver had to go call a special wrecker service. Meanwhile, I went down by the lake, got down on my knees and finally accepted the Lord as my Savior. I got back on the bus, told the driver, “Crank it over,” and the bus started right up.
… It says in the Bible you must be baptized, and we were on the road all the time, so finally I found a Methodist minister named Blaine Smith in Atlanta, and I was baptized in the pool of the downtown Y.M.C.A., and a little while later, right in the middle of Peachtree Street, I got down on my knees and received the Holy Spirit.”
A New Beginning
Shortly after his baptism, Wayne retired from the road, and went into the ministry. He’s now the pastor and director of Voice For Jesus Family Center in Hialeah, Fla. When I asked him, after all the years performing, all the glamour that he was finally able to obtain, and the big royalty check that he received courtesy of Pearl Jam’s 1998 version of “Last Kiss,” what he was most thankful for, he paused for several minutes, and then said:
1) I’m thankful that through it all, my family is still together.
2) They love me and help me.
And finally: 3) With help from the Almighty, I can help a few people myself.
At the end of our interview, Wayne began conversing with a woman at a nearby table. The woman had overheard our conversation, and told the big man from Georgia that she had been truly blessed by his testimony.