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.'"

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."

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."

Cochran broke up the C.C. Riders and came off the road for good in 1978. He kicked his numerous dependencies (cold turkey, he says, through the determination and strength he found in the Bible), and Monica came back to their Miami Springs home with the kids. He started attending a Kendall church a few months later, formed a gospel group with his daughter Diane, and, as he puts it, "was called to the ministry by the Lord in April of 1981."

Despite his all-consuming faith and devotion, despite the fire in his voice and eyes when he brings the subject around to what religion has done for him, Wayne Cochran doesn't see himself as a preacher. He likes to think of himself as a teacher, offering instruction and guidance to anyone willing to pull up a chair and lend an ear and an open mind. "I've never talked about sin or finding the Lord or anything like that," he says emphatically. "That's not how I found the Lord. I found the Lord through reading and doing and putting those words into action and seeing the evidence. I just wanted to tell people what I learned, to say, 'Look, you can do this too. I've found the solution to my problems right here in the Bible and it works. It works every time.'"

That simple edict may provide the foundation of the Voice for Jesus message, but Sunday services are slightly more sumptuous, with deep blue and rich red lights bathing the stage in a concert-worthy glow. Banners hanging around the hall offer inspirational instructions such as "Celebrate the Kingdom" and "He Has Shepherded Us, Now It's Time." Unlike most church services, the Voice for Jesus affairs are events, full-blown productions with an emphasis, naturally, on music. Although the choir handles most of the songs -- rollicking spirituals in the Deep South gospel tradition -- Cochran will every now and then turn in a gravelly line or two. Parishioners sway in unison, eyes closed, hands raised.

The quick spins and knee-drops are a thing of Cochran's past, gymnastic moves that are beyond the abilities of his 57-year-old frame; he leaves the choreography to the shimmying choir. Instead he presides over the affair like a dignified elder statesman; the blond pompadour of old has turned white but is still a marvel of maintenance and grooming. More times than not, Cochran shares the stage with his wife and co-pastor Monica and the occasional parishioner. On a recent Sunday, an elderly woman testified before a full house that a long-time spinal injury had miraculously disappeared; a middle-aged member had a similar story about a mysteriously vanishing cancerous tumor the size of a small lime. It was faith and prayer, they say, that wiped out their illnesses. "Praise the Lord!" Cochran chimed in. "Jesus is Lord, is he not? Let's worship God!"

It may look easier than his role as a dynamo soul wonder, but Cochran says running Voice for Jesus is a full-time job. "When you're dealing with people, and dealing with them usually at their weakest and most frail point in life, you've got to be there for them seven days a week," he says. He clearly enjoys talking about the old days, but there isn't a trace of bitterness when he talks about the missed opportunities or acknowledges the fact that there isn't a single Wayne Cochran record in print.

"I've already lived about ten lifetimes, and really I'm supposed to be a dead man by now. But I'm so far removed from the past. This is what I want," he says, pointing to the door beyond his office that leads out to the ministry main room, the sound of choir rehearsal echoing in the distance. "It's been a long road, but I can't complain about the way it ended. I love what I'm doing and I love where I'm at.

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