John Capouya teaches journalism and writing at University of Tampa, and is a nonfiction mentor in UT’s Creative Writing MFA program. This story, along with his profile of James Purify which previously appeared in Panhandler Magazine, are adapted from his forthcoming book, Florida Soul, to be published by the University Press of Florida.
“You don’t have to jump no pews,
or run down no aisle,
no chills run down your spine.
But you’ll know
that you’ve been
My hands didn’t shake
the earth didn’t quake,
no stars fell from the sky.
But I know
that I’ve been
The singer’s a trim white man in his mid-70s, conservatively dressed in tan slacks and a dark blazer, the only patch of bright color coming from his orange pocket square. His medium-length hair is a grayish white, and Pastor Wayne Cochran wears a thin gray mustache that seems to come from and represent the past, an older generation’s idea of manly grooming. He’s smiling and confident as he sings his own mid-tempo composition in this Miami-area TV studio.
This broadcast is an outreach effort by and for his Voice for Jesus Church, and Wayne Cochran Ministries. Since the early 1980s he’s had various cable TV shows, including one called “Miami Voice,” a play on that era’s hit TV show, “Miami Vice.”
Cochran’s a singer, and his voice has held up well. Reaching down for the last “born again,” he taps into a low soulful timbre that’s actually more melodious than his former signature style, a belting shout. He’s still got the gravel: a raspy blast, when he wants to use it. With today’s minimal backup group behind him, you can actually hear his singing better than you could back in his other heyday, when he led Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders.
He doesn’t mention his past in this broadcast, but it lives on online. A post on the forgotten hits blog by a Chet Coppock testifies that “Wayne was just the damndest night club soul man God ever put on earth. I recall one night when he took the whole crowd out of The Happy Medium [a Chicago nightclub] and led us on a snake dance up Rush Street…” Another post on that same site describes showmanship that clearly goes beyond the ministerial: “Saw him at the legendary Diamond Club in Dayton over 30 years ago. He was standing on a table singing with that gravelly voice. He proceeded to fire a mostly drank bottle of Jack into the ceiling, breaking it into a hundred pieces.” The post concludes, “If you couldn’t dance to Wayne Cochran, you were in a coma.”
Pastor Wayne was a wild man; in his more than 20 years on the road the frontman for Cochran’s Circuit Riders put out manic energy that audiences responded to (click here for video) and that sustained his career. He seemed to genuinely be enjoying himself on stage, and that carried over as well (in a recent interview he says his antics were fueled in part by speed and cocaine). Cochran, who says he got his fashion sense from the flamboyant 1940s and 50s wrestler Gorgeous George and Marilyn Monroe, was known for his wildly colored and garish outfits. There was the russet and black cape, for example, with an orange shirt underneath and black scarf around his throat. When Cochran spun and twirled, the cape billowed out to the sides, touching his two female backup singers on his flanks. Cochran’s hair was likewise extreme: An exploding pouf of bleached-blond hair, an XXL pompadour, topped his extra-large head (click here for photo). When he wore one of his pink stage outfits he’d get his hair tinted pink as well. “It was a subtle thing,” he says in fond remembrance. “Unless you looked close you couldn’t see it.”
There was self-conscious humor to his act but as much as he was funny Cochran was genuinely funky. Cochran could dance and had a strong soul voice. He didn’t have much range but didn’t need it to put his songs across, belting them out, grunting like James Brown–“Uh! Good God!”–and adding gospel exhortations like the preacher he would become. Jeff Lemlich, curator of the Florida music blog The Limestone Lounge and author of Savage Lost, a history of FL garage bands, declares on his blog that “Wayne Cochran is the most authentic-sounding white soul singer I’ve ever heard.”
Like James Brown, he also consistently carried and rehearsed tight, horn-driven bands. Those players, and the rhythm section and backup singers, danced in choreographed steps, ratcheting the show’s hyper-kinesis up even higher. The James Brown comparisons are not coincidental. Cochran, who hailed originally from Thomaston, GA, was billed as “the white James Brown” as well as “the King of Blue-Eyed Soul.” He maintains that he and Brown were friends from time they spent together in Macon, and that the Godfather didn’t mind the close homage.
In the 1960s and early 70s, Cochran brought close-to-authentic black music–or, to give him more credit, authentic black music transmitted via a white delivery system–to white audiences, folks who would never go see James Brown or perhaps even know who “The Godfather of Soul” referred to. That was likely crucial to his success, and his transmissions may well have contributed to soul’s crossover success.
Cochran’s Riders was the house band at The Barn nightclub in Miami, played long, regular gigs in Las Vegas, and appeared on that era’s popular TV shows, including those hosted by Dinah Shore; Merv Griffin; and Mike Douglas. Cochran gave those audiences– the white Miamians who would not go to Overtown clubs; the vacationing masses in Vegas lounges; and the millions who watched those shows–an inoculation, a tolerable dose, or, as a Tower of Power song puts it, a soul vaccination. And this shot would not make white listeners immune, but instead, susceptible.
Though he’s at no risk of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cochran made a lasting mark on popular culture. In the first Blues Brothers movie, released in 1980, their manager urges them to update their act. “Times have changed,” he tells them. (For no good reason except that it makes Belushi and Aykroyd’s trademark fedoras look even sillier, they are in a sauna.) “You have the same act, the same suits. Why don’t you guys get some jumpsuits like Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders?”
Today Cochran is moderated, even downplaying his most transformational moment, being saved, in the lyrics to his gospel song. In his first life, however, he was synonymous with antic, pew-jumping behavior. In 2014 when David Letterman announced he would leave “The Late Show,” The Daily Beast quoted musical director Paul Shaffer on his initial job interview. Shaffer proposed that his house band play soul and funk. “That sounds great,” Letterman responded, adding, “I’ve always considered myself the Wayne Cochran of comedy.”
“Energy” is a Cochran mantra. When he was growing up in Thomaston, GA, and began playing country music on guitar at 13, he recalls, “the only music that was happening then–that was high energy at all–was Hank Snow. He had a song called ‘I’m Movin’ On,’ and one called ‘The Golden Rocket.’ You had the beginnings of what would become known as rock and roll, with people like Ivory Joe Hunter, but there was no rockabilly yet, and no soul music. There was nothing but country and jazz, big band pop, and Frank Sinatra.”
Born in 1939, he was about 11 when Snow’s hits appeared. Interviewed in a Miami Lakes hotel restaurant, Cochran is animated in remembrance, breaking into song at various times to make a reference clearer. His memory for music is still sharp: At one point he breaks into “Hadacol Boogie,” a ditty praising a bottled health tonic, recorded by Bill Nettles and His Dixie Blue Boys and later covered by Jerry Lee Lewis. “If your radiator leaks and your motor stands still / Give ‘er Hadacol and watch her boogie up the hill/ Do the Hadacol Boogie…”
The first music that really moved him was Elvis’s early Sun singles, which made Snow sound laconic. “I remember there was a little honkytonk club in Thomaston, had a juke box. A friend said, ‘You gotta come down here and listen to this song. That was Elvis’s ‘Baby Let’s Play House.”’ In 1957, he felt the same way about “Whole Lotta Shakin’” by Jerry Lee Lewis: “a lot of high energy.”
A couple or three years earlier he paid 15 cents at the Ritz Theater to see the movie, The Glenn Miller Story. Cochran liked the swing of ”In the Mood” and “String of Pearls”–“moving tunes,” he called them. But the bio-pic also “showed them on a bus touring and that’s where I got my ideas about being on the road.”
Then, at 19 or 20 years old, he met Otis Redding. Redding, born two years after Cochran, was singing in Gray, GA, 50-some miles east of Thomaston, with Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers. Cochran went to see him one night at the all-black Club Fifteen, “and it was just amazing what they sounded like,” he says. After the first two songs, he was a convert to soul. “They had minor chords; I had never heard such a thing.” He may have actually responded more to the singers’ blue or flatted notes. In any case, “it was so great I had to learn to sing like that.”
The two singers became friends and hung out at Cochran’s house (Redding was from Dawson, GA). “Otis was great at imitating Elvis,” he says. “And my momma loved it ’cause she loved Elvis.”
Soon thereafter Cochran, who was married with two children by age 22, moved to Macon, where he got his next and perhaps the ultimate steeping in soul. James Brown was living there and was “king of the hill,” Cochran says, after the success of “Night Train.” Then, in 1964, Cochran fell for Brown’s “Out of Sight” (“You’ve got a shapely figure mama, that’s keeping me uptight”). Little Richard was living and performing there, too; those two great showmen–“high energy” doesn’t begin to describe their performances–shaped Cochran’s stage command and, along with Redding, his singing style.
Back then, Cochran says, white and black music–much like his admiration for Jerry Lee Lewis and James Brown–“was interwoven. We all knew each other. And here’s another thing: We wasn’t trying to create a new style of music. We were just playing what we liked, and adding what we liked. It turned out to be R&B. To me, R&B or soul was rock and roll with a little more intensity. Take it, make it really intense, growl and scream, you got R&B.”
He wasn’t yet a working professional, however, in any genre. Instead, he sold furniture, ran a dairy route, and worked construction. (He’d left school after the ninth grade.) But he had ideas. He’d played the VFW Club back in Thomaston, and his quartet got paid $60 for a Friday night. His Rocking Capris got the same rate at the Lake Henry Supper Club in Roberta. “I’m thinking, my dad makes $25-$30 a week, working forty hours a week at the cotton mill. In two nights a week I’ll make as much money as he does.”
After a while he hired a four-piece outfit from Jacksonville, FL, called Bobby Cash and the Nite Flyers, who were already touring, and went on the road with them for the first time. A club owner in Shreveport wanted a horn band, “’cause horns was big in Texas and Louisiana.” And horns were a crucial part of the James Brown sound, one that Cochran had been yearning for since JB’s “Live at the Apollo” album came out in 1963.
Cochran hired the horns from the Dixie Crystals, and named the new nine-piece band the C.C. Riders, for Cochran’s Circuit Riders. “Back then bands played circuits,” he explains. “And you would go in and play two to four weeks in a club, so if you got six or seven clubs lined up you could play for six months like that. If you repeat them, you got a year’s work.” White bands like his weren’t on the chitlin’ circuit at the time; “ours was more like the vaudeville circuit: white clubs,” he says.
He followed a flamboyant chitlin’ circuit tradition, though, buying a new baby blue Cadillac and had his name inscribed on the side. “I was a big shot.” To carry the rest of the crew and equipment he added a $50 hearse. “You had to stop and put water in it about every 30, 40 miles.”
A Riders set would include Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful;” “Night Train;” and some Isley Brothers (“Shout;” “Twist and Shout.”) Packed houses and return crowds in the South and Midwest led to a better pay scale that included some or all of the door, or cover charges. Cochran says he and the Riders could take in $1000-$1500 a night. After that breakthrough, did he go buy more Cadillacs? “Naw, I got a Lincoln. ”
Like much of his musical selections, The Cochran Hair was another cover or reinterpretation. One night in Shreveport, Cochran went to see two young guys from Texas, billed as It and Them. “They were great, great musicians,” he says, “and the two lead guys were albinos.” And they had foot switches [controlling] red, green, and blue lights. And every time they changed the lights, their hair would change colors. And I’m thinking, ‘Man. that is incredible!’ So I started trying to find somebody who would bleach my hair that night.” The two albinos–brothers, it turns out–were Edgar and Johnny Winter.
Early on, his costuming was an homage to–or imitation of–James Brown. “I had me a floor-length cape, black satin with red velvet lining, like he had. And at the end of our show [a helper] would come out and put the cape on me, and I’d throw it off and they’d put it on again… So we did James Brown’s ‘Live at the Apollo’ show.”
His costuming notions were also inspired by Gorgeous George, who favored lavender cars, painted his house lavender and, reportedly, dyed some of the turkeys on his poultry farm the same color. “My thing was pink and rose,” Cochran says. ” I would put on a pink and rose suit, and tint my hair pink–like a light, light, light pink. If you didn’t looked close you couldn’t see it. It was just a highlight.” Cochran also remembers seeing a newspaper article on Marilyn Monroe, who’d pulled up to some event with a police escort. “She got out of a beige Thunderbird and she had on a beige linen suit and her hair was dyed beige and she had a poodle and he was dyed beige. And I was thinking, ‘Now that’s the way to dress!”
“From Miami Beach, the sun and fun capitol of the world, it’s The Jackie Gleason Show!”
With that introduction from announcer Johnny Olson, the TV camera moves to “The Great One,” as Gleason was known, that nickname reportedly given him by Orson Welles. The host of this hour-long CBS variety show is 50, and not yet at his portliest. Gleason wears a brownish jacket over a shiny black vest, a white shirt, black bowtie, and his trademark red-carnation boutonniere. In a sign of the times–this is October of 1966–he lights a cigarette and holds it smoldering in his left hand as he addresses the camera and the studio audience in the Miami Beach Auditorium (later the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts).
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he begins, “occasionally I go to a nightclub. I like to bounce around town and see what’s going on. One night I dropped into a place called The Barn, and what I saw there I have never seen before and I don’t expect to ever see again.” Laughter from the audience. “I’m going to introduce to you the wildest combination and the wildest guy I’ve ever seen in my life. Ladies and gentlemen, here he is, and I know you’re going to be wild about him: Wayne Cochran!
Cut to an 11-piece band in black suits; six horns, backed by both a trap drummer and Latin percussion, blast out up-tempo riffs. Still seen in a long shot, the singer comes on, a vision in a pastel yellow suit with narrow pegged pants, the broad collar of his white shirt extending out over the trim-fitting jacket. He picks up a mike and goes into some sliding dance moves on a narrow platform that juts out perpendicular to the main stage. He’s a lean figure, fairly tall, and as the camera comes in tighter, showing him from the waist up, the true glory of his hairstyle is revealed. It takes the shape of a rooster’s comb, jutting forward from his forehead like a bouffant Mohawk, only this wider style covers the entire top of his head.
“I want everybody to let your hair down,” he roars, in a deep raspy baritone. Cochran then launches into a series of barely connected riffs–it’s not a song, really–starting with his exhortation to “get down with it!” as the band blasts away at a hyper-fast tempo. “I’ve got a brand new dance everyone can choose,” he continues. “Come on baby, I want to see you move…” The audience of white couples seated at little round nightclub tables, gets up on their feet and starts to dance.
As Wilson Pickett did in his hit, “Land of a Thousand Dances,” Cochran quickly references the Jerk, the Swim and the Watusi, with primitive rhymes attached to each. He’s moving, all right, his upper body bending side to side with the beat as his legs and feet move twice as fast below. His dancing has an unusual quality that evokes James Brown: From the knees down Cochran’s lower legs and feet seem to scurry and jab independently, including splaying out to the sides, while his upper legs remain more or less vertical.
“Snap your fingers; stomp your feet; clap your hands; with that beat,” he blasts. “Come on!”
Then Cochran and the band segue into “Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones’ hit from the previous year, then back into the chant of “get down with it!” Cochran turns sideways to the audience and glides toward them just by torque-ing his feet in tandem, and then the song ends with a high blast of horns. The singer takes a bow.
In the mid-1960s Cochran and the Riders moved to Florida, and became the house band at The Barn on Miami’s 79th Street Causeway, where Gleason caught his act. Cochran says the TV star and his crew had a set of tables right in front of the stage reserved every Friday night, and that June Taylor, choreographer for the show’s dancers, took some ideas from the Riders’ synchronized moves.
For the next several years, the most successful of Cochran’s career, “we were there eight or nine months a year. That was our base, our home.” Cochran and the Riders held it down six nights a week, three shows a night. The Barn’s four-drink minimum threw off $300-$400 to each musician, he remembers.
Still in thrall to Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” album, Cochran staged his show like a continuous revue: “The band would play big-band jazz for 30 minutes before I came on. And they loved that because they didn’t think that they’d ever be able to play in a jazz band with horns, ’cause that was passé by then. But people dearly loved it. Then we had a group of girls called the Shirley Delights, they’d do two songs and then I’d come on do my show.”
He’d left the guitar-playing behind somewhere on the road. “By then I was strictly an entertainer.” Cochran’s opening number was either “You Don’t Know Like I Know” or “Hold On! I’m Coming,” both by Sam and Dave (that duo was formed in Miami), or “Can’t Turn You Loose” by Otis Redding.
In 1965 and ’66, he put out singles on Mercury Records that became his signature tunes: a cover of “Harlem Shuffle” (click here for video) the original “Get Down With It;” and “Back to Miami,” which Cochran wrote for a Gleason Show appearance. The song began with just Cochran singing over pounding drum licks: “Going back to Miami / Going back to my girl and was later covered by the Blues Brothers. Chess, the Chicago blues label, released an album, Wayne Cochran!, in 1967. As was the case with singles he recorded on the Gala, Confederate, Aire and King labels, it didn’t do much business. Cochran doesn’t really understand why; it may be that the energy he and the Riders generated live simply didn’t transfer on vinyl. For another reason, his act consisted mostly of covers.
His most successful, and lucrative, recorded work is “Last Kiss,” a lost-love anthem he wrote back in Thomaston. The familiar last lines are: “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…” He cut it for Gala, a Georgia label, and later for the R&B stalwart King Records in Cincinnati, but neither sold well. Cochran never performed it live, he says: “That’s a rockabilly song. I never sung it on a show. People come to hear Otis Redding’s ‘Can’t Turn You Loose’ and then you turn around and sing ‘Last Kiss’? Wouldn’t work.” Instead it was a big pop hit for J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers, in 1964 and has been done by many others, including, strangely enough, Pearl Jam, in 1999 and 2003. Cochran says he holds the songwriting rights and royalties.
While at the Barn, Cochran met the actress Ann-Margret and her husband, which led to the band’s appearance in a 1970 B-movie starring her and former football star Joe Namath, entitled C.C. and Company. Namath’s character was named C.C. Ryder. This in turn led them to Las Vegas. The band alternated long gigs between the Flamingo and the International. A 1983 Herald story said he commanded $14,000 a week for his “roaring, crazed blues act.”
In Vegas, appropriately enough, Cochran took his style to more garish extremes. He had “Southern Plantation style” suits made by an L.A tailor, with three-quarter-length coats, cut away in the front, over vests and lace shirts with “Napoleonic collars. They had a lot of beautiful embroidery and rhinestones on very exquisite material,” he says. “There was nothing cheap about it.” Cochran maintains that, when he shared a bill with Elvis Presley, he had similar suits made for the King, and that after he switched to jumpsuits, Elvis did, too.
By the early 1970s Cochran had been divorced from his first wife and broken up with his second, Monica. His wild stage behavior became less entertaining and increasingly destructive: smashing chandeliers, dishes, and stage lights. Even he couldn’t summon the energy to work six or seven nights a week anymore, or for the grinding road, all the one-nighters with their constant setting up and tearing down. “It’s a rough life,” he says, “I wouldn’t wish it on nobody.” He took speed or cocaine to perform, “and then you’d have to take a downer to go to sleep afterwards. My downer was Southern Comfort.”
He began looking for solace. He’d never felt much for traditional Christianity, so Cochran began reading up on Eastern religions, “pyramid power,” and even positive thinking as espoused by Norman Vincent Peale. On the long bus rides he’d always find something in them that would excite him intellectually but not spiritually–“they would still leave me empty. It didn’t touch my heart.” He noticed though, that many of those other sources invoked Holy Scripture to validate their own points of view. In one in his endless series of hotel rooms, he picked up a Gideon bible.
In 1979, after a gig in Toronto, he called it quits and came off the road, rejoining his second wife, Monica, with whom he’d reconciled. He dropped the band members off one by one heading south; by Florida he was driving, the only one left.
“I’d been on the road since the mid-60s and I’d been in music almost 25 years,” he says. “And what I had going for me was equity in my bus.” He put a little combo together with guys he found through a newspaper ad and his youngest daughter on vocals. Then Cochran started a Bible study group in his living room, which, in 1981, became the Voice for Jesus Church, the Wayne Cochran Ministries.
Sunday services are at 10 am in Theater 11 of the Cobb Theaters multiplex in Miami Lakes, FL. Pastor Jose´, who’s assisting Pastor Wayne, explains that they are here temporarily; after they sell some land they own, they will build their own church. Cochran’s son Chris manages the ministry and this morning, two of the girls singing on stage are Wayne’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter. At the back of the stage, projected words read: “Voice for Jesus: Tell My Children How Much I Love Them!”
The band–keyboards, drums, two guitars, bass–as well as the congregation are a mix of whites, blacks and Latinos. Congregants filed in, perhaps 40 of them, clutching well-worn Bibles with crinkled corners marking places of note. Pastor Wayne, dignified in a black suit, white shirt and dark tie with a subtle polka-dot pattern. After a half-hour of songs–high-energy songs with names like “Lord You Are Awesome” and “My God is Mighty to Save” he walks with a slight hitch or limp to the center of the theater, to a Plexiglas lectern. He wears a flesh-colored headset with a mike attached, glasses with gold-colored wire rims, and a crucifix on a chain around his neck. He joins the singing briefly, then commands, “Everybody say:
“This is the day!”
The congregation responds: “This is the day!”
“The Lord has made!”
“The Lord has made!
“I will rejoice!”
“I will rejoice!”
“Now, remember what “rejoice” means,” the minister intones. “It means to dance around in a circle. That’s what David did. You don’t have to do that but if you want to, just take off! I don’t care. Hallelujah. Go ahead and praise Him!”
Next week, he announces, a former SEAL will give his testimony, and play the trumpet as well. “We’re gonna have our own SEAL here, he’s still sniping–sniping the Devil!”
Older, sober, and more humble, Cochran is still the star, clearly used to being a leader. At times he gets a little arch, not quite testy, at what he takes to be ill-considered interview questions. “So, you wanted to play rock and roll at first?” he was asked. “Well, yeah,” he says, “that’s why I’m talking to you about it.”
No one is as convincing as the convinced, and in most things, it seems, Cochran is sure. He has the confidence of the saved, and of someone who has relied on himself, worked for himself, and seen himself succeed in two careers–winning over two very different audiences.
Today’s sermon has to do with wealth transfer, he tells the assembled. “Not Obama’s wealth transfer,” he says, “not a socialist wealth transfer, but a supernatural wealth transfer. The world’s financial system is crumbling; the Babylon system is failing. And it’s crumbling so God’s can take its place. The Kingdom of God will prevail but it can’t rule unless He can rule over the finances. Whoever got the money got the honey,” he cracks, to much laughter. The outcome–in this life, not in the next one, he stresses–has been foretold: “The wealth of the wicked will belong to the just.”
His speech is vernacular, colloquial. “The Devil don’t own this earth,” he reminds them. “We do.” “What’s he talking about?” he’ll ask, meaning himself. “I’ve got a ninth-grade education,” he reminds them at one point.
Soon it will be time to take up the tithe and offering.” First, though, Cochran concludes his sermon. “Listen to me,” he commands. “We’re the children of the Most High God. We can believe Him and trust in Him. So when you see all the financial systems in the world falling apart, praise God. Praise God! Now say this:
“The wealth of the wicked”
“The wealth of the wicked”
“Is laid up for me!”
“Is laid up for me!
“I’m getting ready to receive it!”
“I’m getting ready to receive it!”
“I’ve planted my seed…”
“I’ve planted my seed…”
“My crop is coming…”
“My crop is coming…”
“I believe it..”
“I believe it…”
“In Jesus’s name…”
“In Jesus’s name…”