A revered master of the six string, Bobby Cochran has played alongside some of classic rock’s greatest performers. Known for his inspired lead work with artists including the Flying Burrito Brothers, Steppenwolf, Leon Russell and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Cochran is the nephew of Eddie Cochran of “Summertime Blues” fame. His playing is rooted in country, surf style music and good old rock and roll. His expansive approach never fails to complement the sound and takes the music to its highest level. After his steady touring days in the ’70s, ’80s & ’90s he grew weary of the crime in Southern California and relocated his family to Nashville. His life story is a tale of moving in search of opportunity while seeking to overcome some of life’s most challenging obstacles. An inveterate gear tinkerer and once practitioner of the martial arts, he developed a unique spirituality and world view while touring the planet and performing music. In addition to playing in his own outfit (he has different iterations of the band in Nashville, Southern California, Sweden and the U.K.), Bobby, who has produced many artists, works as a recording and musical equipment consultant, teacher and clinician. Cochran has a book in the works (due out next year) that he hopes will shed light on love, life, spirituality and the purpose of life.
Let’s start at the beginning. So when did you first start playing the guitar?
I first picked up the guitar when I was twelve and a half. It was a couple years after my uncle Eddie [rockabilly icon Eddie Cochran] died. My dad [Bob Cochran] had a little acoustic guitar sitting in the backseat of his car and we were parked at a drive-in movie. I heard a western melody come over the speaker [scats out the guitar line to “Bonanza”] and I started picking along. I thought to myself, hey I can do this! That night I asked my dad to teach me how to play. He taught me some basic chords and I was hooked. Shortly after that he went on a drinking binge for a few days and all I could think of was how much I wanted him to come back home so that he could show me how to tune that guitar.
So your father was a big drinker?
Yes, he had a problem. My Uncle Eddie did too. It ran in the family. It was painful to grow up around. They both had a lot of pain about something. They were very intelligent and talented individuals who just had some deep pain. As a result, I made a commitment to myself to steer clear of drinking and drugs. I believed I needed to honor my life, honor my health and honor my talent. I was also very prayerful. I have always preferred to be as present as I can in life. My indulgence was music. I immersed myself in practicing the guitar.
And obviously you stuck with it once you learned those first few chords . . .
Yeah, I played as much as I could. I was given a certain gift to start with, and I also practiced very hard. Other than swapping licks with friends, I was mostly self-taught. I made a commitment to practice every day. Once I woke up around 1:00 am and realized that I hadn’t practiced that day, so I grabbed my guitar and started playing in the middle of the night. When I woke up the next day I was still holding the guitar. I missed a lot of school partially because of my devotion to music. According to my old report cards I actually missed more school than I attended, from the 4th grade on.
Where did you live at that time?
We lived in California. Eddie and I were born in Albert Lea, Minnesota, but when I was about two, we all moved out to Los Angeles [Bell Gardens]. Originally, the Cochrans were from Oklahoma City. Bell Gardens is next to Cudahy and Huntington Park in Los Angeles County. Lots of Okies had relocated to that part of LA. We eventually moved to Buena Park and then Cypress. I was in some great local bands there at that time, including Benny and the Midniters, which became Li’l Willie G and the Midniters and then Kelly and the Midniters. These were very popular bands from East L.A. and they were my first professional bands. I was the only white kid in the band [laughs]. We were really breaking down the musical and racial barriers. We had a hell of a good band. Being that I also played with Bobby and the Midnites later in my career, it’s clear that I had a midnights theme running through my life.
What is a midnighter?
Someone who stays up late. A midnight rambler, a carouser. You know, musicians are always up late, playing a gig and then an after show jam, or what have you. A midnighter would be someone who is up and about around the midnight hour. The first great band to use the name that I can remember was Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. I think they inspired the use of the name.
Who were some of your main influences?
I liked my uncle Eddie’s music a lot and I had access to lots of his recordings that no one else had, but my first albums were by Chet Atkins, the master of the Nashville sound, and Duane Eddy, who was the king of the twang guitar. He was known for great old tunes like “Rebel Rouser,” “40 Miles of Bad Road,” and “Cannon Ball.” With Atkins it was mostly like how does he do that?! Duane’s style I could actually access. I got to meet him once and I told him how much he had influenced my playing. His tone and melody were amazing. He had a big impact on me as a young player. I also liked Buck Owens and his guitarist Don Rich. And some of Eddie’s friends showed me some stuff after he passed away. Dad and I would go to Hollywood to visit Eddie’s girlfriend [Sharon Sheeley]. Jackie DeShannon was visiting and she taught me this G to C thing she did that’s still a part of my playing. Her charisma and enthusiasm wore off on me too. She turned me on to B.B. King, saying, “Your uncle really liked this guy, and he would be great to listen to.” That was my foundation. When I finally got to meet B.B. and Mike Bloomfield one night I got a chance to talk about their vibrato techniques with them. That was a huge thrill. I also got to know James Burton, who was another friend of my uncle. I always liked his playing and we eventually became friends.
Do you remember much about your uncle?
Well, I was 10 when he died, but I did get to hang out with him a little. One of my most vivid memories was when he, my dad and I were lying on our backs in the back yard at my aunt’s house. I was lying down next to Eddie and we were all looking up at the sky. I remember that a bunch of coins slid out of his pockets. I said, “Hey Uncle Eddie you dropped these, you dropped your money.” He said, “Oh thanks, you can keep those. That money is for you.” He was a really generous man. He was almost generous to a fault. Sometimes he would run out of money in the middle of a tour because he was buying people dinners and not paying attention to his financial situation. He was the baby of his family and he was like a god in our family. He died at the age of 21. I wrote a book about his life. [ Three Steps to Heaven: The Eddie Cochran Story. Published in 2003]. I also remember looking at him one morning when he was walking around my grandparents’ house and I remember thinking, “Wow that man’s hair is really messed up.” (laughs) I think I was about four years old at the time. He used to slick his hair back and I remember there being a grease spot on the head rest of the chair where he used to sit.
Being a musician and following in his footsteps, how did it feel to be related to a legend of early popular music?
He’s a huge part of who I am on both a musical and spiritual level. After he passed away I would have lucid dreams in which he would spend time with me and teach me how to play guitar. We were able to relate to each other through these dreams. Our communication was more telepathic. I kind of saw myself through him. I couldn’t remember the details of what he taught me, however it was as if the guitar just made sense as it unfolded and I seemed to understand it. These dreams helped me to understand him and learn about the magical connections we have available to us. They were a powerful influence for me, and they seemed far more real than being awake during life itself. I made a commitment to myself to be a great guitar player because of him and how much I admired him. He was an extraordinary guy, and he had it all. I was very prayerful and dedicated in those days. I was fortunate that I got to stand on his shoulders so to speak. He contributed to the spiritual roots of my artistic development.