Rock n' Roll Death Ride:
The sad fate of Eddie Cochran
On the cold night of April 16, 1960, Eddie Cochran slipped out the side door of the Royal Hotel in Bristol, England. After a week of shows at the Bristol Hippodrome with Gene Vincent, Eddie was tired and wanted to avoid the fans still milling around the lobby. He was at the end of three long months of UK concerts and Eddie—who had been joined in the last few days by his girlfriend, Sharon Sheeley—was ready to leave dreary, gray England behind and fly home to sunny California.
Eddie was only a few years into his career but he was already a genuine rock star. He had his rock n' roll debut in 1956, singing and playing “21 Flight Rock” in the Jayne Mansfield movie, “The Girl Can't Help It”. Since then he had made another movie, worked as a session guitarist, and put out some incredible singles, like “Summertime Blues”, “C'mon Everybody”, and “Somethin' Else”.
Gene Vincent was mister “Be-Bopa-Lula” and a star in his own right.
While Eddie was a sweet kid, appreciative and kind to fans and other musicians, his tour mate was a black leather-clad shadow of Eddie. He was a mean drunk, not afraid to push people around or threaten them with the switchblade he kept in his jacket. Gene had come to the UK first and had suggested Eddie to promoters planning the first UK all-rock package tour.
The tour had been a huge success. The shows had been packed with screaming teenage girls and wannabe rocker boys. The concerts, along with radio and TV appearances, introduced the rough and ready American rockers to a huge British audience (including later stars George Harrison and Marc Bolan). Now that it was done, Eddie and Sharon were off to California, and Gene was going to France. The trio, along with tour promoter Pat Thompkins, now piled into a waiting Ford Consul taxi cab headed to London.
The Ford Consul Mark II that killed Eddied Cochran
Sharon Sheely was much more than Eddie Cochran's grieving girlfriend. She had an amazing career as a songwriter and was the youngest woman ever to write a #1 hit with “Poor Little Fool” in 1958. She co-wrote some Cochran songs, including the much covered “Somethin' Else”, and later had a string of hits with Jackie Deshannon. In 1964 she and her then-husband, Jimmy O'Neill, started the ABC musical variety show SHINDIG!, which featured the legendary “Wrecking Crew” disguised as the house band and live performances from everyone in music.
They could've waited until morning. They could've taken the train. But they wanted to get to London as soon as possible to be one step closer to home.
The driver, George Martin, was a local 21 year-old who was understandably excited to have the VIPs in his car. He chatted politely with Thompkins in the front seat, but seemed distracted. He was driving fast enough to make Sharon nervous, over 60 mph, and at one point made a wrong turn on the A4.
Eddie and Sharon sat in the back, Eddie singing sweetly in her ear about California. Gene had taken his usual handful of sleeping pills and was happily unconscious in the back seat as they roared towards the outskirts of the town of Chippenham.
As they rounded a corner the relative calm in the car was shattered by the sound of a tire exploding. Almost immediately, Martin lost control and the cab began to spin. It was only a moment--though it probably felt like an eternity inside the careening taxi--before the rear end made hard contact with a concrete light standard.
Sharon would later say she remembered Eddie throwing himself across to shield her, but it was all for nothing. The sudden force of the car smashing to a halt blew open the doors and trunk, savagely flinging occupants and luggage into the street. Eddie was thrown headfirst onto the pavement, his big, beautiful Gretsch guitar clanging to the road nearby as promo shots floated down like autumn leaves.
Locals, sadly accustomed to car wrecks on that stretch of road, were awakened by the squeal of tires and the sickening, inevitable crunch. They ran into the cold night air and reported seeing George Martin standing next to wreckage, seemingly unhurt. Gene Vincent lay on the road with a broken collarbone and cracked ribs, crawling back from his sleeping pill haze and trying to understand what had happened. Thompkins was in a daze and Sharon Sheeley, suffering a broken pelvis along with bruises and scrapes, was moaning in pain and asking about Eddie.
So, what ever happened to...
At the time of the accident, Gene Vincent already wore a leg brace from a previous motorcycle crash. After the accident he was in nearly constant pain. He pulled it together for a few more UK tours and made records of diminishing quality on a series of small labels. By the late 1960s he was playing with a variety of thrown together backing bands and was drinking heavily. Some nights he could barely remember the words to ““Be-Bop-A-Lula ”; some nights he didn't show up at all. Vincent died in 1971 at age 36, his body ravaged by years of hard living.
George Martin went to trial at the Bristol Assizes and was found guilty of dangerous driving. The judge, noting that he was “a young lad, not yet 21,” fined Martin only £50 and suspended his license for 15 years. By 1969 Martin was back on the road.
Eddie played a beautiful orange Gretsch 6120 guitar, which he restrung and modified to get a unique tone. The guitar was picked up by a young police cadet named Dave Harmon and taken back to Chippenham station. Eventually it was sent to Eddie's mom in California. She kept it in a glass case in her living room until she passed away in the early 1990s. Since then, the Cochran family has loaned the guitar to the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Eddie Cochran lay in a crumpled heap in the road surrounded by instruments, photos, and scattered luggage. He was clearly in very bad shape, but he wasn't dead. Not yet.
In 1960, the late night shift at St. Martin's Hospital was typically a quiet experience. Around 1 a.m. on April 17, the nurses and doctors were shaken from their routine by the shrill sirens of ambulances bringing in the victims of the Chippenham crash.
Gene and Sharon were treated for their their broken bones and given medication for the pain. There was no treatment for Eddie, though. The on-shift doctor recognized the seriousness of Eddie's injuries and woke up his colleagues, who stumbled out of bed and made their way quickly to the trauma ward. They went as far as to consult a trauma expert from another hospital, but it was clear that it was just a matter of time.
Around 4:10 p.m. on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1960, Eddie Cochran died from his injuries.
One of the nurses went downstairs to tell Sharon.