Jackie Lee Waukeen Cochran, the restless, intense singer-guitarist best known for rockabilly classics “Hip Shakin' Mama” and “Ruby Pearl,” was found dead, apparently from a heart attack, at his Toluca Lake apartment on Sunday, March 15. Cochran, who entertained at Santa Monica's Gaslite club on and off for the last four decades, was a pure product of America's Southeastern musical culture.
Born on February 5, 1934, in Dalton, Georgia, by age 12 Cochran was playing guitar with local country bands. After making an early-'50s guest appearance with Hank Snow, he was invited by M.C. Slim Willet to join Willet's Abilene, Texas, country music revue, which led to work on Dallas' Big D Jamboree stage show. In 1955, he relocated to Mississippi, playing in rough backwoods “blind pig” juke joints, but after he saw Elvis Presley perform at New Orleans' Ponchartrain Beach, Jack the Cat was born. In short order, he was back on the Big D Jamboree, where his manager defined this new persona in shrewdly iconographic terms, constructing a 7-foot-tall wooden black cat with flashing red light-bulb eyes – one of rock & roll's earliest set pieces – that stagehands rolled out every time Cochran took the stage (“I hated the damn thing,” he said, “but it sure was effective”).
He made his first records, for indie label Sims, in Dallas, but by 1957 the Cat was in Los Angeles. Assisted by legendary A&R man “Uncle” Art Satherley (the first to record Bessie Smith, Bob Wills and Gene Autry), he signed to Decca. With his new single, “Ruby Pearl,” getting substantial airplay, Jack was poised to become “the next Elvis and all this crap,” but he'd forgotten about his manager back in Texas. Threats of a lawsuit derailed his career and Jack quit the music business entirely for several years. He appeared briefly with Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love and re-emerged in 1962 to cut “Georgia Lee Brown,” a searingly moody piece of rock & roll mysticism (covered by the Cramps in 1985).
A key force in the '70s Rollin' Rock stable, by 1986 Cochran had returned to the Gaslite, the bar where he'd sporadically worked since the early '60s; he routinely packed the joint until unexpectedly quitting last month. Cochran, an unpredictable, ornery and passionate man, was also one of rock & roll's most distinctive stylists, and now, hopefully, has found the peace that always seemed to elude him in life.