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.

Cochran dropped out of school in the ninth grade to devote himself full-time to music, and it didn't taken long for him to outgrow the minuscule music scene in Thomaston. By the late Fifties, he had headed a hundred or so miles southeast to Macon. Once there he cut a few sides for some local labels, including "Last Kiss," a Cochran-written song that failed to launch its creator but became a hit in 1964 for J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers and in 1973 for the Canadian pop group Wednesday. Cochran also struck up a friendship with a young Macon-based soul singer named Otis Redding, who, at that point in his nascent career, was singing in the Pinetoppers, led by local guitarslinger Johnny Jenkins. A 1960 single by the group -- a raucous piece of Southern-fried R&B called "Shout Bamalama," issued on the Confederate label -- featured Cochran sitting in with the band on bass. (The song was also published by his Cochran Music Company.)

After Redding left Macon to become a soul legend in Memphis, Cochran formed a band of his own to take on the road. He relocated the quartet to Bossier City, Louisiana, for an extended stint at an R&B club called Sax's Boom Boom Room, where he augmented the lineup with a horn section and rechristened the unit the C.C. Riders. The name was short for the Cochran Circuit Riders, but it didn't hurt that R&B singer Chuck Willis had a huge stroll hit in 1957 with a song by the same name.

The Riders started touring immediately, crisscrossing the country by bus and hitting seemingly every nightclub, showroom, and roadhouse joint in the country. They played a frenetic kind of R&B that was based on the airtight dynamics and blues-baked wallop of James Brown and his Famous Flames. Cochran's frantically paced shows were patterned after Brown's energetic concerts, just as he borrowed some of Brown's dexterous and intricately choreographed moves. Cochran, though, made everything faster, louder; everything was bigger, from the size of his carefully coiffed 'do to the size of his band. And for white audiences reluctant to venture across the tracks to hear Brown and his black R&B contemporaries, Cochran offered a powerful and impassioned shot of blue-eyed soul, not unlike what the Righteous Brothers and Mitch Ryder's Detroit Wheels would soon be taking to the top of the pop charts.

In 1964 Cochran moved the band once again, this time to Miami, where they debuted at the grand opening of the Barn, one of the city's favored R&B haunts in North Bay Village. Cochran and the band began to hone their intense live performances.

"Back then," Cochran remembers, "the big thing was to be a dance band. If the people weren't dancing, you didn't work. But when they're dancing, they don't see you, they don't watch you. So what we'd do, during the big dance songs -- things like 'Shout' -- I would go out on the dance floor and the horn players would follow me. I'd drop down on my knees and they'd form a circle around me. Then everybody would stop dancing and start watching, and we just kept doing that until we became a show band, where people sat down or stood at the dance floor and just watched us.

"And in those days," he continues, "the stage was like this magical, mystical area where everything looks great. The performers would get off-stage, though, and you'd see that their shoes aren't quite so new and that their suits are sort of frayed and not quite so perfect. But we'd be out there in the audience, standing on tables. We'd make the whole room part of the show. We'd play at full volume; it was like this wall of sound, and there was never a stop between songs. We'd write horn interludes to take you from one song to the next. Once it would start, the show literally never stopped. You couldn't breathe until the show was over. And after the show, you'd just be beat."

Bob Perry caught the C.C. Riders a few times back in the late Sixties, at the Barn and at the Newport Seven Seas Lounge. Perry, who owns Blue Note Records in North Miami Beach, recalls that Cochran more than lived up to his reputation as a madman performer. "It was all that and more," Perry says. "He was just an amazing performer, and the C.C. Riders had a great horn section, really funky. And as the night progressed he'd just get even more intense as a result of God knows what. It got to where he would be out in the audience, standing on people's tables and knocking bottles over, walking on top of the bar. The crowd would go nuts. You had all these tourists in there from Europe and they'd never seen anything like it. They were just going bonkers."

Foster Wilson viewed that kind of mayhem up close for two years. He played trombone for the C.C. Riders from 1973 to 1975 and can remember one stretch when the band played 43 consecutive one-nighters without a break. They caught showers only every two or three days, usually in Union 76 truck-stop bathrooms. "It was a lot of fun but it was very exhausting," says the 51-year-old Wilson, currently the vice president of entertainment at the Las Vegas Hilton. "Wayne was a lot like one of the guys, it was like he was our equal on- and off-stage. You know, he was never a great singer, but he was very soulful and energetic. He was just a great entertainer. He could whip an audience into an absolute frenzy. And musically we were one of the best bands on the road."

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