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Wayne Cochran, showman of '60s rhythm-and-blues

For a few years in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the music world's most extraordinary showmen was a Georgia-born rhythm-and-blues singer named Wayne Cochran. Inspired by the vocal styles of soul superstars Otis Redding and James Brown, he was once billed as the "White Knight of Soul."

Wayne Cochran
Wayne CochranRead more

For a few years in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the music world's most extraordinary showmen was a Georgia-born rhythm-and-blues singer named Wayne Cochran. Inspired by the vocal styles of soul superstars Otis Redding and James Brown, he was once billed as the "White Knight of Soul."

With his gravelly voice, gravity-defying hairstyle and outrageously dynamic performances, Mr. Cochran became a cult favorite and was an influence on Elvis Presley. He had an unforgettable stage presence that led entertainer Jackie Gleason to call him "the wildest guy I've ever seen in my life."

Mr. Cochran died Nov. 21 at his home in Miramar, Fla. He was 78.

The cause was cancer, said a grandson, Jason Cochran.

Mr. Cochran began his career in the 1950s, singing country and rockabilly music and writing songs. One of his tunes, "Last Kiss," became a major hit for two other groups, 35 years apart.

In the 1960s, he was a headliner in Las Vegas and appeared on national television and at the Apollo theater in Harlem. He recorded several albums and was sometimes proclaimed "the King of Blue-Eyed Soul" and "the white James Brown," after whom he patterned much of his stage style.

Writing for the website, musician Steve Leggett called Mr. Cochran "one of the true unsung heroes of rock & roll."

His band, the C.C. Riders, included backup singers and a blazing horn section, all performing slick, choreographed moves. His shows had no stopping point: The band kept vamping from one song to the next, as the music and audience reached a point of frenzy.

"We were all about performing," Mr. Cochran told the Miami New Times newspaper in 1997. "We had lines waiting outside clubs for basically 25 years."

In Las Vegas, where he once made $14,000 a week, Mr. Cochran began wearing custom-designed capes and rhinestone-studded jumpsuits - a style later picked up by Presley, who also borrowed some of Mr. Cochran's songs.

Whenever he was onstage, he was unmistakably the center of attention. His platinum blond pompadour towered six inches or more above his head, like a centurion's helmet constructed of cotton candy. He modeled his look after Marilyn Monroe and a wrestler from the 1950s, Gorgeous George.

A full-time hairdresser traveled with Mr. Cochran to keep his bouffant mound of hair from drooping during high-energy performances that sometimes lasted until dawn. (The 1970 B-movie C.C. and Company, with football star Joe Namath, contained a glimpse of his live act.)

Mr. Cochran had a raspy power saw of a voice, accompanied by a dazzling array of dance moves, spins and slides, including a sideways shimmy across the stage on one leg. He sang soul standards, as well as original tunes, including "Goin' Back to Miami," "Get Down With It" and "No Rest for the Wicked."

He drove from town to town behind the wheel of a baby-blue Cadillac, with his name painted on the side. His band followed behind in a bus or a hearse. At least once, Mr. Cochran drummed up local interest by making an elaborate entrance at a fancy restaurant, wearing an emerald-green suit as his gold-jacketed band members stood at attention. His hairdresser acted as his food taster.

"You could hear the forks droppin' all over the place," he later recalled.

During his raucous performances, Mr. Cochran walked across tables and bars and sometimes fell to his knees, seemingly overcome by emotion, only to rise again, revived by the sheer force of his music.

"Blessed with a scorching, soulful voice and a flair for the theatrical," Leggett wrote, "he burned through everything he sang with an intensity that should have made him an international superstar. It didn't happen."

Mr. Cochran's records never became big hits, and life on the road took its toll. Drugs and marital problems left him in despair and, by his own account, he once held a gun to his head, ready to pull the trigger.

"I had had everything," he said in 1997. "I had gone from nothing to everything and was heading back to nothing."

Except for occasional stage or television appearances, he largely abandoned his music career at 40 and turned to preaching. For the rest of his life, he was the born-again pastor of the Voice of Jesus ministry near Miami, which featured Bible readings, shouts of hallelujah and a state-of-the-art sound system, for whenever Mr. Cochran felt the urge to sing.

"I believe in the power of music," he said. "If you don't want to get ecstatic, don't come to this church."

Talvin Wayne Cochran was born May 10, 1939, in Thomaston, Ga. His father worked in a textile mill.

Mr. Cochran left school in the ninth grade and at various times was a garbage collector, roofer, furniture salesman and construction worker. He began playing in bands in his mid-teens and by age 21 had written "Last Kiss," a teen tragedy song about a boy mourning the death of his girlfriend in a car wreck:

Where, oh where, can my baby be?

The Lord took her away from me.

She's gone to heaven, so I've got to be good,

So I can see my baby when I leave this world.

"Last Kiss" became a hit in 1964 for J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers and again in 1999 for Pearl Jam, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts both times.

Mr. Cochran seldom performed the song himself, especially after becoming enamored of the music of Redding, Brown and other Georgia-bred soul singers. He played bass on some of Redding's early recordings.

"All that I am today is because of those two men: Otis Redding and James Brown," he told Atlanta's Creative Loafing newspaper in 2007.

When he was starting out, he worked mostly in black clubs, basing his flamboyant performing style on Brown's, including dance steps, clothing and histrionic near-collapses.

"I never heard race in the music," he told the Miami Herald in 2011. "It was just music that spoke to me. It moved me."

Mr. Cochran had lived in South Florida since 1965. His song "Goin' Back to Miami" was recorded in 1980 by the Blues Brothers, fronted by comic actors Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.

His first marriage, to Inez Newton, ended in divorce. He was married twice to his second wife, the former Monica Powell, who died in February. Their daughter, Diane Cochran, died more than 10 years ago.

Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Cynthia Warford of Miramar and Christopher Cochran of Pembroke Pines, Fla.; a sister; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

During a 1982 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, Mr. Cochran described the raspy vocal quality needed to sing the blues.

"You gotta sound like you're hurtin' a little," he said. "I used to tell people, 'Just tie yourself to a donkey, let him drag you for about six months across a desert. When you stand up, you can sing the blues.' "