LEVINE: Anatomy of a hit record

The Old Rocker

“Well, where oh where can my baby be

The Lord took her away from me

She’s gone to heaven so I got to be good

So I can see my baby when I leave this world

“We were out on a date in my daddy’s car

We hadn’t driven very far

There in the road, straight ahead

The car was stalled, the engine was dead

I couldn’t stop, so I swerved to the right

I’ll never forget the sound that night

The screaming tires, the busting glass

The painful scream that I heard last”

Lyrics to “Last Kiss”

Former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joaquin Andujar had an inimitable style with mathematics and the English language. Commented the Dominican Republic native during the 1987 baseball season, “There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is ‘You never know.’ “


Barry Levine

Those who wrote rock ‘n’ roll songs, unless your name was John Lennon or Paul McCartney, also could have said “You never know,” when finishing what they hoped would be a No. 1 hit.

That probably is what Wayne Cochran was thinking after writing megahit “Last Kiss” some 50 years ago.

A native of Thomaston, Ga., Cochran has written approximately 60-70 songs, and the only one to reach the Top 40 was “Last Kiss.”

Cochran first recorded his big hit in the summer of 1961 at the University of Georgia on the Gala label. It failed to generate much interest.

He re-recorded it for the King label in 1963 in Macon. This version also resulted in few commercial ripples. Cochran dedicated the song’s second version to a teen who was killed in an auto accident in December 1962. “I knew ‘tragedy’ songs were selling well so I wrote one. … I liked what they did with the chords on Sam Cooke’s ‘Chain Gang’ and incorporated some of that into ‘Last Kiss,’ ” Cochran said recently in a telephone interview. “I wrote half of ‘Last Kiss’ in two to three hours, and then it took a few months to finish it.”

According to Cochran, a DJ in Lubbock, Texas, was playing “Last Kiss” on a regular basis when J. Frank Wilson heard the song and liked it. Wilson & the Cavaliers recorded “Last Kiss” in 1964, and it rose to No. 2 in the nation on Nov. 1, 1964, trailing only “Baby Love” by the Supremes. It finished the year ninth overall on the Top 100 list.

It was the group’s only Top 40 hit.

“Last Kiss” resurfaced again in 1974 when Wednesday, a Canadian group, covered the song and it reached No. 34 on the Billboard charts. Thirty-five years after J. Frank Wilson’s & the Cavaliers’ hit, Pearl Jam covered the song and it reached No. 2 in June 1999, trailing only “If You had My Love” by Jennifer Lopez. It ended the year ranked No. 23.

Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder found “Last Kiss” in an antiques store in Seattle before a show. He took it to the band, and they used it throughout the summer of their 1998 tour.

One of the most popular bands of the past 25 years, Pearl Jam recorded “Last Kiss” and released it to their fan club members, who often got songs that were not available to the public. Radio stations eventually got copies of the group’s “Last Kiss” cover and started playing it. By the spring of 1999, it was getting heavy airplay and became a hit.

“I honestly did not know that Pearl Jam covered ‘Last Kiss’ until my grandson told me,” Cochran said. “All I know is that I get a monthly check from the publishing company and spend it.” The Wayne Cochran story is not limited to writing a tragedy song that reached No. 2 on two occasions.

Born in 1939, Cochran showed his independent nature as a teen. Two weeks into his sophomore year at Robert E. Lee High School in Thomaston, he was told he could not wear his “duck tail” hairdo. Instead of changing, he promptly quit school.

He formed three local bands from 1955 to 1963 before forming the C.C. Riders. While some thought the name emanated from Chuck Willis’ 1957 Top 15 hit “C.C. Rider,” this C.C. Riders stood for “Cochran’s Circuit Riders.”

The revamped group played a six- to eight-month stint in Bossier City, La., and then took a booking in Muncie, Ind.

They played several clubs in the north-central section of the nation. One club was “The Castaways,” which was located in a bowling alley in Calumet City, Ill. A flashy dresser with his high, blond pompadour, Cochran met Walt Daisey, who was one of the club’s owners. Daisey and two partners were planning to open a club in Miami, and they selected Cochran and his group to open “The Barn.”

They played soul music, rhythm and blues with horns. As a result, they called the club the “Home of Soul.” Because of their musical style, Cochran & Co. got bookings in the major black theaters throughout the country, including the Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Apollo Theater in New York and the Regal Theater in Chicago.

As the success of the all-white, rhythm-and-blues band increased, Cochran and the C.C. Riders got TV bookings on The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show and The Jackie Gleason Show.

That got the band a booking in Las Vegas. The group quickly became the biggest drawing lounge act in Vegas.

The Barn eventually closed, and the Riders decided to make Las Vegas their home base. While in Vegas, they served as the opening act for a guy named Elvis Presley.

Because of a lack of rest and the endless hours of touring, Cochran developed voice problems. He revealed that he had started doing drugs and drinking excessively. Said Cochran on his Website, “I had never been to church but once or twice in my whole life. I didn’t really care for Christians. I thought they were all hypocrites. They always pretended to be goody-goody, but I knew better.” Cochran realized that he needed assistance, and tried to find help and improve his life.

He started reading books on Eastern faiths, primarily because he had never seen anything in Christianity that could help him with his plethora of problems. He said he noticed that all of the Eastern faiths and all of the books of philosophy that he read would eventually mention The Bible or Holy Scriptures. He eventually began to read The Bible and looked at it as a book of formulas or plans.

Cochran said that in following the Bible, everything that had driven him to excess had been corrected. “I had been delivered from alcohol and drugs, and my career was flourishing again,” he revealed. Around 1980, after traveling for years, Cochran and his wife decided to stop traveling. Just to have something to do and to augment his income, Cochran formed a four-piece band that had his youngest daughter singing with him, They played a small club in Miami.

He started a ministry — Wayne Cochran Ministries, also known as the Voice for Jesus Church — in September 1981, and he is still running it today in Hialeah, Fla.

Barry Levine writes about music and the movies for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at dot0001@yahoo.com.