Obituary: Jerry Capehart
Thursday 18 June 1998
In October 1955, Capehart came across the young Cochran in Bell Gardens, California. "I met him in a small music store," Capehart would tell journalists later. "I was in to buy guitar picks and he was looking for guitar strings. I had been searching for someone to make demonstration records of my songs and the store owner introduced me to Eddie, who I think was 17 at the time."
Cochran and Capehart really hit it off. The singer had just formed the Cochran Brothers with Hank Cochran (although the two were not related). The duo had made the switch from hillbilly music to the more potent brand of rock 'n' roll they had seen Elvis Presley pioneer on stage.
Capehart, who had fought in the Korean war, was already a songwriter of some repute. In 1951, he had composed "Beautiful Brown Eyes" and seen both Rosemary Clooney and the country vocalist Jimmy Wakely take the song into the American charts. However, Capehart's own singing career, under various guises (including the names Jerry Berryhill and Jerry Neal), had not proved as successful, and he started using the Cochran Brothers to cut demos of his songs. He also pitched the recordings to prospective record companies. When "Walkin' Stick Boogie" appeared on the Cash label in 1956, it was credited to "Jerry Capehart featuring the Cochran Brothers". On Ekko, "Tired and Sleepy" / "Fool's Paradise" was just by the Cochran Brothers. However, the "square"-looking Hank seemed to be holding the other two back and he eventually left for Nashville, while Eddie went solo. Capehart became Cochran's co-writer, producer, manager and confidant.
The pair spent hours in the studio, creating and overdubbing instrumental tracks like "Guybo" (named after the bassist Connie "Guybo" Smith who played on most of the recordings) and gaining a mastery of the studio which would later stand them in good stead. They also put out the odd single by Jewel & Eddie and the Kelly Four on Capehart's labels, Silver and Capehart Records, while Cochran supplemented his income with session dates as a lead guitarist. All the while, Capehart, convinced he had found a real gem, was hustling Cochran around the Californian music industry.
American Music, a Hollywood publishing company, eventually released Cochran's first solo single, "Skinny Jim", on their Crest label in 1956. Encouraged by this break, Capehart took the singer into the famous Gold Star studios (later used by the ace producer Phil Spector) to cut more demos. "Twenty Flight Rock" turned out well, and armed with this and three other tracks, Capehart secured a recording contract for his charge with Si Waronker of Liberty Records who just happened to be on the lookout for his own Elvis Presley. Around the same time, Cochran was also spotted by the movie- producer Boris Petroff who booked him to provide backing music on a soundtrack. He also offered Cochran a part in The Girl Can't Help It, the John Shanklin movie featuring the ample charms of Jayne Mansfield and the creme de la creme of a new musical genre.
With his quiff, his moody look and his trademark Gretsch 6120 guitar, Cochran caught teenagers' imagination as he performed "Twenty Flight Rock". Little Richard, Fats Domino and Gene Vincent also appeared in the 1956 film, which sparked off riots and marked the beginnings of youth culture. However, the following year, while the movie was being screened around the United States, Liberty shelved "Twenty Flight Rock" as a single and decided to promote the ballad "Sittin' in the Balcony" which became a US Top 20 hit.
Subsequently, the charismatic Eddie Cochran starred alongside Mamie Van Doren in another teen classic, Untamed Youth (1957, directed by Howard W. Koch). The singer also toured Australia with Little Richard, the Everly Brothers and Gene Vincent and released his debut album, Singin' To My Baby, in 1958. As Capehart subsequently admitted, "the selection of songs on the first album was a broad general cross-section. We were looking and hoping that something would come out of the album to give Eddie more identity as a singer."
By the middle of that year, the producer was beginning to despair of ever following up Cochran's first hit, after "Drive-In Show" and the next four singles all flopped. The two finally hit their stride with the infectious "Summertime Blues", one minute 59 seconds of pure adolescent angst. This track only became the A-side after "One Minute To One" was rejected as too similar to "Sittin' in the Balcony".
Analysing the appeal of "Summertime Blues", written in 45 minutes, as Cochran played around with the catchy acoustic guitar riff and Capehart clapped and chimed in with lyrics, has baffled generations of critics.
I'm gonna raise a fuss, I'm a-gonna
raise a holler,
About a-workin' all summer just-a- trying to earn a dollar,
Everytime I call my baby, try to get a date,
The boss says: "No dice son, you gotta work a-late."
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a- gonna do,
But there ain't no cure for the Summertime Blues,
went the opening verse and chorus, the fourth line being spoken with a basso profundo effect.
A US Top Ten hit in 1958, "Summertime Blues" has since become a rock 'n' roll classic. It has been re-released (in 1968, when it again made the Top Forty), has featured in movies, and has also been successfully re-interpreted by the American rockers Blue Cheer, by The Who on their masterful 1970 album Live At Leeds and, most recently, by the country singer Al Jackson.
"C'mon Everybody", Eddie Cochran's follow-up single, was crafted around a similar theme and made you want to dance just as much. As the song says, "When you hear that music, you can't sit still."
Later, Capehart would willingly explain his contribution to the recordings he supervised:
Primarily, I was a lyricist, but Eddie also contributed words from time to time. He would start playing a lick on guitar and we'd bring the song together from a collaboration of ideas. As a general rule, on all of the records like "Summertime Blues", "C'mon Everybody", "My Way" and "Somethin' Else", in fact all the heavy rhythm items, the mainstays were Eddie, Guybo on bass and Earl Palmer on drums.
In 1959, Cochran was featured in Go Johnny Go, directed by Paul Landres and produced by Alan Freed, the American DJ who had coined the term "rock 'n' roll". This time, Cochran sang "Teenage Heaven", another song he had written with Capehart, but Chuck Berry stole the movie.
The following January, Cochran came to Britain and toured with Gene Vincent. The 10-week series of concerts proved so popular that it was extended (a young George Harrison was said to have followed it around the north of England so he could learn to play like Eddie). Cochran also made four appearances on Granada TV's Boy Meet Girls. Taking advantage of a two- week gap in the schedule, Cochran, his fiancee Sharon Sheeley and Gene Vincent planned to fly back to the States after appearing in Bristol. On the way to Heathrow, their car crashed and Cochran was thrown through the windscreen. He died on 17 April 1960. "Three Steps To Heaven" was released posthumously and reached No 1 in Britain.
Jerry Capehart later managed the singer Glen Campbell and the impressionist Frank Gorshen, who played the Riddler in the Batman television series. He also worked as a marine surveyor and studied to become an attorney. But he was always happy to talk about Cochran.
"Eddie was one of the innovators of rock 'n' roll. He set standards that people are still trying to achieve," Capehart said in 1991.
Capehart was diagnosed with brain cancer a month before his death in Nashville, where he had gone to pitch a new song called "Summertime Blues No 2".
Jerry Neil Capehart, songwriter and manager: born 1929; married (two sons); died Nashville, Tennessee 7 June 1998.
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