Friday, 28 October 2011

Wiltshire Rock N Roll Landmarks - Eddie Cochran's death site

A few months ago I posted an article on Radiohead's links with the county of Wiltshire, where I have lived all my life. Following on from this I am going to publish a number of articles and photos of some of Wiltshire's other notable places of musical historical interest. A few days ago I went to Chippenham and on the way back decided to stop in a lay-by that is near my mother-in-law's house. Why? Because this is near the place where 50's rock n roll legend Eddie Cochran died in a car crash.

The American ten idol was involved in a car crash on Rowden Hill, and his injuries proved to be fatal. Here is a photo taken by me (although there are many other photos of this spot) of the memorial plaque that has been placed there as a tribute.

Below is a clip from the work-in-progress Julian Cope documentary 'Revolution Blues' where he and his band busk at the Eddie Cohran memorial stone (about 3minutes 48 seconds in). This was part of a Joe Strummer-inspired tour of UK landmarks.... You can view a set of these photos (including the band marching towards the direction of my Mother-in-law's house) here.

American rock'n'roll star Eddie Cochran died during the afternoon of Easter Sunday 17th April 1960.

His death in St. Martin's Hospital in 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.
Not one, but two genuine American rock'n'roll stars, criss-crossing the UK and even making TV and radio appearances! 
By then, the first flush of raw rock'n'roll was long gone, so the sight and sound of Gene and Eddie was an antidote to the blandness of much pop music at that time. They were nothing short of a revelation… Eddie in particular. 
Often described as 'James Dean with a guitar', Eddie Cochran 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 50 years on - are regarded as classics of the genre. 
Eddie had arrived in the UK on 10th January 1960, to join a UK tour with Gene Vincent which had already been on the road since before Christmas. 
It was promoted by top pop impresario Larry Parnes and the support acts and musicians were all young UK rock'n'rollers that Parnes had under contract. 
These included at various times along the tour - Billy Fury, Joe Brown, Georgie Fame, Vince Eager and Johnny Gentle.
It was a long tour with a punishing schedule, and the British winter was not something that California-resident Cochran was used to. 
So by the time they all rolled up at the Bristol Hippodrome on Monday 11th April for a week-long residency, Eddie (and his accompanying girlfriend, songwriter Sharon Sheeley) were looking forward to returning to the USA immediately afterwards.
For this last week of the tour, Billy and Joe were off playing elsewhere and the support acts included Georgie Fame, Johnny Gentle and also Tony Sheridan - who a year later would make a record in Germany, with an unknown Liverpool group called The Beatles.
After the final show on Saturday 16th April - and back at the Royal Hotel to collect their things - Eddie wanted a lift back to London with Johnny Gentle, who had driven himself to Bristol, but his car was full. 
There were no more trains at that time of night, so a taxi was called. 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.
These were pre-M4 days, so Martin initially chose the old A4 down through Bath, but with this being a bad road, especially at night, he decided on a short cut on the outskirts of Chippenham.

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."
It appears that as the car sped out of Chippenham trying to get back on the right route, Martin lost control on the bend at Rowden Hill, (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.
After the car had come to a halt, Martin and Thompkins were able to walk away from the wreckage uninjured.  But Gene and Sharon, along with Eddie were lying on the grass verge.
Gene had broken his collarbone, but fortunately for Sharon, she only suffered shock and bruising. 
However, the injuries to Eddie would prove fatal.
The noise had brought local residents onto the scene. Dave Chivers told the Wiltshire Times: "I was getting into bed when I heard a whistling outside, followed by a series of bumps and smashes.
The Daily Mirror reports on Eddie's death

"My first reaction was that it was a plane crash.
"I went outside and saw the wrecked car, several people lying about, a large guitar and scattered photographs, which had come from the open boot. I telephoned for an ambulance from the kiosk nearby."
The first police on the scene included a young Wiltshire cadet called Dave Harman, who with a name change to Dave Dee, become a highly successful pop star himself.
The time of the accident can be accurately pinpointed.  In those days the street lights went out at midnight and the ambulance from Chippenham arrived soon after, in total darkness.
The three were taken to St Martin's hospital, but Eddie had suffered severe brain damage. He never regained consciousness and died at 4.10pm that afternoon.
Like Buddy Holly who came our way two years earlier, Eddie Cochran also 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 totally 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 backed Eddie on the tour, as a member of Marty Wilde's band, who were loaned out to Cochran for some of the live dates and also his BBC radio sessions for the Saturday Club show.
Brian recalls Eddie showing him some great drum tricks and said what a great player he was.
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 them both 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 Gentle 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.
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.

Interesting bit of trivia: 

The car and other items from the crash [that killed Cochran] were impounded at the local police station until a coroners’ inquest could be held. At that time, David Harman, better known as Dave Dee of the band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, was a police cadet at the station. He taught himself to play guitar on Cochran’s impounded Gretsch 6120.
Coincidentally, earlier in the tour, the same guitar had been carried to the car for Cochran by a young fan called Mark Feld, later to become famous as Marc Bolan of T.Rex and who, in a further coincidence, was also killed while a passenger in a single-car automobile accident … [At one stage] Bolan had his main Les Paul model refinished in a transparent orange to resemble the Gretsch 6120 guitar played by Cochran.

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