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.

Through constant touring, Cochran's combo built a loyal and sizable following. Ironically, the popularity of their club gigs kept them on the road so much that it was nearly impossible for the band to take time out to do any recording or songwriting, so the Riders' set lists and handful of records leaned heavily on soul and R&B covers, both in the studio and on the concert stage. Only a few of their records broke nationally.

The Riders' debut single was issued in 1966 on Mercury Records, a cover of the Bob and Earl soul hit "Harlem Shuffle," followed shortly by "Get Down with It." Some singles were later issued on famed labels such as Chess and King, as were the occasional longplayers. (Old King Gold still pops up in used bins; the critically praised 1972 set titled simply Cochran, released on Epic, is a rarer find.) The Riders also cut some instrumentals on Bethlehem (an offshoot of King). Cochran's greatest song from the period -- arguably his greatest song, period -- was a self-penned stomper titled "Goin' Back to Miami," an overlooked classic of the white-soul era that boiled the entire history of James Brown into a three-minute, call-and-response raveup. The song netted some national airplay but failed to crack the Billboard Top 100. In 1980 John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd covered the tune on Made in America, the second Blues Brothers album, which was dedicated to Cochran and the C.C. Riders.

"Records just weren't that big a thing for us," Cochran admits, although they did squeeze in a 1970 film appearance in C.C. and Company, a box-office bomb starring Joe Namath and Ann-Margret. "We were all about performing. We had lines waiting outside clubs for basically 25 years." If he never had much of an impact on the charts, his blaring big-band soul sound and furious live show helped shape the style of numerous horn-laden pop groups of the late Sixties, including Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago. Cochran's sandpaper vocals and flamboyant appearance -- flashy suits and a towering, gravity-defying blond pompadour -- have been cited by Rod Stewart as a major influence. Cochran also says that the arrangement of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary" that Ike and Tina Turner hauled up the charts in 1971 was based on a version performed by the Riders when the two acts shared a bill at the Casino Theatre in Las Vegas.

Cochran says the band played as many as 279 dates without a day off. To maintain that kind of schedule he turned to various chemicals and liquid stimuli. He reels off the contents of his traveling medicine cabinet: "Coke, booze, grass. If you couldn't get coke you'd get uppers, miniwhites, Dexedrine, crystal meth. I just got to a point where I was at the end of my road. I had nothing in my life, but I had to go out on the stage every night and act like the all-American boy -- all rhinestones and smiles -- and it just got to be a prison. I lost my wife and kids, I owed the government tens of thousands of dollars because [an associate] at the time spent $72,000 of my money while I was on the road and I was held responsible. I literally had a gun in my hand. I felt like I had completely lost control. My life just wasn't in my hands any more. I had to turn it around. I had to find some help. So I started reading, looking for some answers.

"I didn't even think about Christianity at the time, because I had seen too many hypocrites in my younger years. I had never seen it serve any purpose. You know, supposedly you got to Heaven, but I wasn't interested in Heaven. That could be a long ways off, and I needed help right then, that day."

Cochran turned to what he calls "the mystics," ranging from the writings of Edgar Casey and the Dalai Lama to Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking. And he found something in them. "There was some exciting knowledge there that the average man doesn't have, but mostly it just got me thinking positively. But the feelings never changed; I was still devastated and empty inside, scared to death of the future, drinking more and more."

Cochran began to notice that these works continually referred to the Bible, so he pilfered a Gideon from a hotel room in Austin, Texas. ("I thought I stole it because I didn't know about the Gideons," Cochran says. "It was stealing to me because there was theft in my heart. I snuck out with it.") What he read there surprised him.

"It was like something I had never heard on Christian radio or in church back in the old days. It was Deuteronomy 8:18," he says, quoting the verse and emphasizing its first line: "'But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth....'"

"I was shocked," he recalls. "I thought I had stolen a bogus Bible. I didn't think the Bible said you were supposed to be wealthy. But I know it was the Lord leading me through the Bible because I would find scriptures that directly related to the problems I was having and it would give me direct instructions on how to solve them. And I didn't have anything to lose. If I had had anything to lose, I wouldn't have read it. I would've kept on having fun. But I tried to do things as explicitly as I could according to the Bible -- and man, within a day or a week or a month, the strangest things would happen. It just never failed me. I mean, it worked every time. I was still drinking and I still had a problem with drugs, but I felt like I had found Aladdin's lamp. I'd never experienced anything like that in my life."

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