This year – 2017 – Easter Sunday falls on 16th April. In 1960, Easter Sunday was on 17th April – the day this then teenager, and many others across Britain and beyond, remember as the day that Eddie Cochran died. His death, in St. Martin’s Hospital, Bath, came as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash just outside Chippenham, late the night before.
Eddie and his great friend Gene Vincent had been touring the UK since mid-January on a package tour that had created a sensation amongst UK rock n roll fans. By 1960 the first flush of raw rock’n’roll was long gone – much to the regret of many of us. I had virtually all of Gene’s and Eddie’s discs at home. They were well-hidden though because Dad had ‘accidentally’ damaged some Bill Haley 78s at Christmas. Eddie & Gene were not going to have the same treatment.
Often described as ‘James Dean with a guitar’, Eddie had everything going for him. A young, good-looking guy, a hugely talented musician, who as well playing stunning guitar, could also handle bass and drums and most unusually for those times, also wrote his own songs. Two of which – ‘Summertime Blues’ and ‘C’mon Everybody’, had been huge hits and today – nearly 60 years on – they are regarded as classics of the genre.
Eddie had arrived in the UK to join a tour that had started before Christmas. Promoted by Larry Parnes the acts and musicians were all under contract to him and included Billy Fury – another of my idols – Joe Brown, Georgie Fame, Vince Eager and Johnny Gentle. The tour had a punishing schedule through a typical British winter – something California-resident Eddie was used to! By the time the group reached the Bristol Hippodrome on Monday 11th April for a week-long residency, Eddie and his songwriter girlfriend, Sharon Sheeley, were looking forward to going back home.
After the final Saturday night show they collected their things from their hotel. Sometime after 11.00pm, a Ford Consul driven by George Martin, with Eddie, Gene, Sharon and tour-manager Pat Thompkins, set off for London. Eddie, Sharon and Gene sat in the back, with Thompkins next to the driver. This was pre-M4 days and Martin chose the A4 down through Bath. However, it was a bad road, especially at night, so he chose a short cut round Chippenham. Pat Thompkins later recalled: “You come out from under the viaduct and come across a bridge in front of you. On your right is the A4 and then the bridge and on your left is the A4 to London. Well, he saw the A4 and turned right, going the wrong way. When he saw the milestone, he realized he was going the wrong way and hit the brakes.”
Martin lost control on the Rowden Hill bend – then a notorious accident black-spot – and spun backwards into a concrete lamp post. The impact sent Eddie up into the roof and forced the rear door open, throwing him onto the road. Martin and Thompkins were able to walk away from the wreckage uninjured but Gene, Sharon and Eddie were lying on the grass verge.
The noise brought local residents onto the scene and the police were called to the scene. An ambulance from Chippenham arrived soon after, in total darkness and the three were taken to St Martin’s hospital. Gene had broken his collarbone but Sharon only suffered shock and bruising. The injuries to Eddie would prove fatal. He had suffered severe brain damage and never regained consciousness. He died at 4.10pm that Sunday afternoon.
Like Buddy Holly who came our way two years earlier, Eddie Cochran had a profound influence on young aspiring British musicians. Joe Brown has often said what a great and innovative guitar player Eddie was, introducing styles and techniques that had never been seen here before. Georgie Fame credits Eddie with introducing the music of Ray Charles to a mainstream UK audience, through his playing of Charles’ songs in his stage act. Shadows drummer Brian Bennett, as a member of Marty Wilde’s band who were loaned out to Eddie for some of the live dates and his BBC radio sessions for the Saturday Club show, recalls Eddie showing him some great drum tricks. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey both idolised Eddie and of course, ‘Summertime Blues’ was for years a Who stage-favourite. Ironically, the biggest UK hits for Eddie’s songs ‘C’mon Everybody’ and ‘Somethin’ Else’, came in 1979, when The Sex Pistols took both of them to number three in the charts.
George Harrison had seen Eddie when the tour played Liverpool and even acquired an important piece of Eddie memorabilia: ‘In 1999 I worked on a radio series for the BBC World Service with Paul McCartney, looking back at his early rock’n’roll years. Paul recalled the-then unknown Beatles touring Scotland backing Johnny Gentle in 1960. Eddie had given Johnny his stage shirt after the Bristol show and following a week of pestering by the young Beatle, Johnny eventually passed it to George. Johnny came to one of the Eddie Cochran Weekender events in Chippenham, where I interviewed him live on air. He too said what an amazing talent Eddie was, and also said he wished he’d kept that shirt!’
When someone dies young, it’s always the eternal question – what would they have done in life? In the case of Eddie Cochran, I think there can be little doubt he would have been the first ‘guitar-hero’ of the sixties, with Clapton, Beck, Page and Hendrix queuing up to play with him. Jimi always said he wanted Eddie Cochran played at his funeral, and he got his wish. What makes this whole story even more poignant is how young Eddie was when he took his seat in the car that night – just 21.
Today, that dangerous bend at Rowden Hill, Chippenham has long since been made safe. There is no longer any physical reminder of the tragedy, except for one thing – a plaque on the grass verge in memory of Eddie. To this day that plaque marks the spot where he Eddie died. It was erected by fans and unveiled at one of Chippenham’s Eddie Cochran Weekender events by Sharon Sheeley, on what was her first visit since that fateful night at Easter 1960.
PS: Included in the police team that came to the crash was a young Wiltshire cadet called Dave Harman. Not too long after he changed his ‘name’ to Dave Dee and became a highly successful pop star himself.
This has been a much longer piece than I would normally post – and is being posted on both of my blogs [talkinghistoryblog & beejaytellingstories]. Wikipedia has a broader story of Eddie’s life and death.
It is quite possible that the story is either new to you and/or not something that presents any interest to you. To me it is a part of my late teenage years. I have most of Eddie’s work on disk or tape and, until quite recently, I still had my guitar from that long ago youth!
PPS: At a different time at a different place Gene Vincent would step on my fingers – but that’s another story!