Soul singer Wayne Cochran, the blue-eyed crooner best known for his towering white pompadour haircut, wild outfits and signature song “Last Kiss,” died in Miramar, Florida, on Nov. 21 at age 78. Cochran’s son confirmed to the Miami Herald that the so-called “White Knight of Soul,” who made a name for himself with his outrageous stage antics before giving it all up to become an ordained minister in Miami, passed after a battle with cancer.
Born Talvin Wayne Cochran on May 10, 1939, in Thomaston, Georgia, the singer was inspired by such classic soul showmen as James Brown and Otis Redding, playing in bands as a teen and later famously influencing Elvis Presley with his gravelly voice, high-energy performances and flashy stage attire. Launching his career in the 1950s, Cochran blended rockabilly and country sounds and by 21 penned the song that would become his lasting legacy: “Last Kiss.” Cochran released the tragic story song about a doomed love affair, a car crash and a final wish from a dying lover in 1961, but it was a pair of covers that made the track famous years later.
J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers made it all the way to No. 2 in 1964 with their million-plus selling version and Pearl Jam scored the biggest chart hit of their career in 1998 when they offered the song as part of their Christmas single for their Ten Club fan club, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and raising more than $10 million for Kosovo relief when they included the song on the charity compilation No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees.
By the 1960s, Cochran became a headliner in Las Vegas, taking the stage in glittering capes and rhinestone-studded suits, outrageous looks that Elvis would later adopt as part of his own Vegas shows. According to the Washington Post, Cochran was known for his slick dance moves, including spins, slides and a signature sideways shimmy across the stage on one leg while he sang a mix of soul standards and originals including “Goin’ Back to Miami,” “Get Down With It” and “No Rest for the Wicked.” He was also known for driving from gig to gig in a baby-blue Cadillac with his name on the side as his band followed behind in a bus or hearse. His stage show and approach made an impression on the Blues Brothers as well, with comedians-turned-blues-singers Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi recording “Goin’ Back to Miami” and referencing Cochrane in the 1980 Blues Brothers film.
After playing bass in Redding’s band early in his career, Cochran went on to front the R&B band C.C. Riders, which for a brief period included a teenage Jaco Pastorius on bass, whom Cochrane mentored before the talented player went on to perform with Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny and others. Cochran disbanded C. C. Riders in the 1970s and gave up the rock and roll lifestyle to form the Voice for Jesus Church in Miami, where the born again preacher presided as a pastor who occasionally sang to his flock.