Soul Salvation

Wayne Cochran was one of America's most energetic and exciting entertainers. But the fast life ruined him. Then he swiped a Bible.

There were times back in the mid-Seventies when Wayne Cochran would wake up in the middle of the night, cold and clammy, soaked with sweat, terrified. He'd run to the bathroom and just lose it, his moist hands gripping the back of the toilet bowl, puking his insides out, thinking seriously about suicide as he cleaned up the mess. Not long before those nocturnal episodes, Cochran had been one of the most popular and well-paid entertainers in America, a pompadoured icon of blue-eyed soul and a veteran of a nightclub circuit that stretched from the hotel lounges of Miami to the casino showrooms of Las Vegas. He and his well-honed, razor-sharp band, the C.C. Riders, attracted the elite of the film and music industry, from Jackie Gleason to Louis Armstrong, from Frank Sinatra to Barbra Streisand. But Wayne Cochran had become a scared man, addicted to pills and addled by alcohol. The rigor of his nonstop touring schedule was taking its toll. Divorced once already, he lost his second wife -- she left him and took the kids with her -- and one of his business associates was sucking his bank account dry. And while the bills piled up, Cochran noticed that the crowds were getting smaller as disco turned his Sixties-based R&B into a dusty, archaic relic of the past. Amid the fog of too much coke and too many drinks, he could see the end looming. He decided he wasn't afraid of dying; he was afraid of living.

"I remember dreading the thought of living another 30 or 40 years," Cochran recalls nearly twenty years later, his thick Georgia drawl adding drama to the memory. "I had this absolute fear of tomorrow. I had had everything. I had gone from nothing to everything and was heading back to nothing. I got to the point of attempted suicide, because when your past is more exciting to you than the future, then you're basically dead. And there was the humiliation of knowing your mama was going to find out the truth about you, that you weren't that good little boy. You just want to get out. You start wondering if there's an answer out there for you."

And Cochran found one. God gave it to him.

The Voice for Jesus ministries is a 22,000-square-foot operation that rests on a wooded stretch of NW 159th Street in North Miami. It's the third location for this growing Pentecostal church, which Wayne Cochran -- Pastor Wayne Cochran -- founded in 1981 with his second wife Monica. Every Sunday morning anywhere from 350 to 500 parishioners of all races gather to sing praises to the heavens and take part in a multimedia explosion of faith that mixes a down-home gospel celebration with the spectacle of the most impassioned and showbiz-savvy televangelists. There's a twenty-member choir and a four-piece band, video projectors flashing images on the wall behind the stage, and dramatic track lighting. Even the foyer is a studied exercise in design; it resembles an idyllic Southern town, from the white-picket fences to small trees strung with Christmas lights. Certainly the ministry's original incarnation was hardly so lavish.

"September 9, 1981, was the day the State of Florida gave me my first corporate nonprofit number, and that night we had a meeting in the living room of my house with fourteen people," Cochran remembers from his spacious office, the walls of which are covered with various proclamations and accreditations, as well as family photographs and some framed mementos of his years in the secular world of rock and roll. He is positioned behind a long, wide desk, dressed in gray slacks, a white polo shirt, and a loose-cut black sport coat. His right hand reaches habitually to stroke his thin white mustache. In conversation Cochran looks you square in the eye; his words come casually but are measured, each thought contemplated before presentation. "We borrowed six folding chairs and I took the back seat out of a conversion van. We had pretzels and chips and dip and drinks. I played the guitar, sang a few songs, and taught from the Bible. That's where all this came from."

Cochran isn't the first entertainer to find refuge in the comfortable confines of Christianity. Still, his reawakening provides an unexpected turnaround to a tumultuous life spent on the merciless road of one-nighters -- a happy if unpredictable ending for an unlikely conversion candidate. Cochran was born in 1939 in Thomaston, a small town in central Georgia. The only son of T.A. and Minnie Lee Cochran, Wayne was raised in a home that for the most part was devoid of the Christian influence. His parents were believers, he says, but his family seldom went to church. "We had a Bible in the house, but nobody ever read it," he explains.

Instead of religion, young Wayne -- shy and reserved, with an interest in football and basketball -- turned to music. The family radio boomed with the honky-tonk rhythms of Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow, and after taking a few piano and guitar lessons, Cochran formed his first band. "I got a couple of guys from the neighborhood interested in playing, so we put a little band together and learned some songs," Cochran says. "We were the Blue Cats, and our first bass was a number-two washtub with a broomstick and a piece of trout-line wire. We'd play around on the weekends on front porches and in people's living rooms. Then I got another band together, a four-piece called the Rocking Capris. We got a job playing at the Veterans Club on Friday night, where all the city folk would go. We made $50, $12.50 apiece. Now remember, my dad was only making $25 to $30 dollars a week working in a textile mill, so I thought, 'Man, this is it.'"

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