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Wayne Cochran, ’60s rhythm-and-blues showman, dies at 78

Flamboyant soul singer Wayne Cochran poses for a

Flamboyant soul singer Wayne Cochran poses for a publicity shot circa the mid-1960s in Miami. Credit: Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives

For a few years in the 1960s and 1970s, one of the music world’s most extraordinary showmen was a Georgia-born rhythm-and-blues singer named Wayne Cochran. Inspired by the vocal styles of soul superstars Otis Redding and James Brown, he was once billed as the “White Knight of Soul.”

With his gravelly voice, gravity-defying hairstyle and outrageously dynamic performances, Mr. Cochran became a cult favorite and was an influence on Elvis Presley. He had an unforgettable stage presence that led entertainer Jackie Gleason to call him “the wildest guy I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Cochran died Nov. 21 at his home in Miramar, Florida. He was 78.

The cause was cancer, said a grandson, Jason Cochran.

Cochran began his career in the 1950s, singing country and rockabilly music and writing songs. One of his tunes, “Last Kiss,” became a major hit for two other groups, 35 years apart.

In the 1960s, he was a headliner in Las Vegas and appeared on national television and at the Apollo theater in Harlem. He recorded several albums and was sometimes proclaimed “the King of Blue-Eyed Soul” and “the white James Brown,” after whom he patterned much of his stage style.

Writing for the website Allmusic.com, musician Steve Leggett called Mr. Cochran “one of the true unsung heroes of rock & roll.”

His band, the C.C. Riders, included backup singers and a blazing horn section, all performing slick, choreographed moves. His shows had no stopping point: The band kept vamping from one song to the next, as the music and audience reached a point of frenzy.

In Las Vegas, where he once made $14,000 a week, Cochran began wearing custom-designed capes and rhinestone-studded jumpsuits — a style later picked up by Presley, who also borrowed some of Mr. Cochran’s songs.

Cochran’s records never became big hits, and life on the road took its toll. Drugs and marital problems left Cochran in despair and, by his own account, he once held a gun to his head, ready to pull the trigger.

“I had had everything,” he said in 1997. “I had gone from nothing to everything and was heading back to nothing.”

Except for occasional stage or television appearances, Mr. Cochran largely abandoned his music career at 40 and turned to preaching. For the rest of his life, he was the born-again pastor of the Voice of Jesus ministry near Miami, which featured Bible readings, shouts of hallelujah and a state-of-the-art sound system, for whenever Cochran felt the urge to sing.

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