‘I Have Understood The Power of Believing’
August 2, 1935-July 15, 2010
Hank Cochran, one of the great country songwriters of the past half-century, whose catalogue includes the only two #1 songs Patsy Cline ever recorded, lost a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer on July 15. He was 74. Cochran is survived by his wife, Suzi; a daughter, Booth Calder; and three sons, all from his first marriage: Garland Perry Cochran Jr., James Lee Cochran and Daniel Cochran.
The Cochran Brothers: Eddie (left) and Hank Cochran, circa 1956
Born Garland Perry Cochran on August 2, 1935, in Isola, MS, Cochran, at age nine, was sent to an orphanage in Memphis following his parents’ divorce. He proceeded to become a frequent runaway, until finally he was sent back to Mississippi to live with his grandparents. To stop the young boy from pestering him, Cochran’s grandfather bought him a guitar, and soon the boy was singing and playing in church. At age 12 he dropped out of school and hitchhiked to New Mexico with his uncle, where both took jobs working on oil rigs. Four years later, as a 16-year-old, he was back on the road, moving westward to Los Angeles, California, where he worked at a Sears & Roebuck store, and befriended a fellow teen musician, Eddie Cochran (no relation). Together the Cochrans pursued their musical ambitions as the Cochran Brothers duo. Though not an especially fruitful partnership, the Cochran Brothers did land an appearance on Town Hall Party, a country music show emanating from KTTV in Los Angeles, as well as a slot opening for Lefty Frizzell. They also recorded together, without success, before Eddie decided to pursue a solo career and became a pioneering rock ‘n’ roll artist and producer.
Patsy Cline, 'I Fall to Pieces,' from The Glenn Reeves Show, February 23, 1963—Cline’s first of two chart topping singles. Co-written by Hank Cochran and Harland Howard, the single topped the country chart in 1960 and crossed over to peak at #12 pop.
Moving to Nashville in January 1960, the then-24-year-old Cochran scored some Top 40 country hits as a solo artist in the early part of the decade—and would continue recording into 2002—but after signing for $50 a week to write songs for Ray Price’s Pamper Music publishing (and helping his friend Willie Nelson get a gig there, too; eventually Cochran would become a co-owner of Pamper), he found his voice as a songwriter. He described the number of songs he was getting cut as “mind boggling,” an assessment corroborated by his first BMI royalty check, for the tidy sum of $11,000. Collaborating with another writer of growing reputation, Harlan Howard, Cochran co-wrote an easygoing, but heartbreaking, breakup shuffle, “I Fall to Pieces.” Hank sang it a cappella to Cline’s producer, the legendary Owen Bradley, and Bradley pronounced it a hit. After hearing a demo of the tune, Cline agreed to cut it, but soured on it immediately before the recording session was to begin. Bradley struck a deal with her to allow Cline to record any song she wanted as long as she would cut one of his choosing. His suggested “I Fall to Pieces,” and it became the first of her two chart topping country singles, and a pop crossover hit to boot, peaking at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. The next year, Cline took another Cochran song, a more subdued, torch-like weeper, “She’s Got You,” to the top of the country charts as well. The same year as “She’s Got You” took off, Cochran found himself with another Top 10 country and pop crossover in Burl Ives’s recording of “A Little Bitty Tear,” a sad song with an oddly detached perspective and bouncy rhythm that Ives read in perfect, dispassionate style. The song had been cut originally by Liberty artist Curly Sanders, with Cochran penning the final verse in recording studio bathroom as Sanders prepared to record it. Sanders’s version, arranged in the driving uptempo style of Stonewall Jackson’s hit, “Waterloo,” was never released as a single. Ives heard it more as a folk ballad, and performed it as such. He followed with another Top 10 pop/country single in 1962 with Cochran’s “Funny Way Of Laughin’.” Both Ives recordings were produced by Owen Bradley.
Patsy Cline, ‘She’s Got You,’ from Pet Milk TV, 1962—the second of Cline’s two chart topping hits penned by Hank Cochran
While on a movie date, Cochran's muse came calling and he bolted out of the theater—over his date’s protests—and began writing a song while traveling back to his apartment. The next day he sang his new composition for Pamper Music president Hal Smith, who declared it the worst thing Hank had ever written. Undaunted, Hank pitched the tune to Ray Price, who liked it and recorded it as an uptempo shuffle, although Hank had written it as a melancholy ballad of loss and longing. The song then wound up with producer Buddy Killen, who was looking for a followup for Timi Yuro, then coming off her big hit, “Hurt.” Yuro cut a version closer in style to what Hank had envisioned, Hank played it for Price and challenged him to outdo Yuro, and Price took the bait—his version became a #2 country single in 1963. A year later, Hank pitched the now-well-traveled tune to Chet Akins, who was scouting around for material for his next Eddy Arnold project. Atkins was cool on Price’s version but heard what he wanted on Hank’s original demo. Arnold followed Cochran's demo, gave it one of his most expressive and touching ballad treatments, and turned "Make The World Go Away" into his signature song, in addition to it being a #1 country hit and a crossover #6 pop hit in 1965.
Eddy Arnold, 'Make the World Go Away,' the Tennessee Plowboy’s signature hit, #1 country, 1965
Over the ensuing decades artists from varied genres sought out Cochran’s songs, including pop singers such as Bing Crosby, blues singers such as Etta James, R&B singers such as Lou Rawls as well as the orchestras of Lawrence Welk and Henry Mancini. Country artists, though, remained the premier interpreters of Cochran's work, and the list of major artists who turned to him for material is staggering: Elvis Presley, Merle Haggarde, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Vern Gosdin, George Jones, Linda Ronstadt, Aaron Neville & Trisha Yearwood (dueting on “I Fall to Pieces”), Ronnie Milsap, Tammy Wynette, Keith Whitley, George Strait, Buck Owens, Johnny Paycheck, and not least of all, Jeannie Seely, who recorded an entire album of Cochran songs (Thanks Hank) in 1967 and was his wife from 1969 to 1979. For Strait, Cochran penned the 1985 chart topper, “The Chair,” a softly seductive, fiddle-and-steel-enhanced come-on sung by a fellow making a clumsy but endearing advance to a woman he wants to know better, complete with an understated comical coda that could hardly have been better conceived to underscore the narrator’s bashful humor. Strait topped the chart again in 1987 with Cochran’s “Ocean Front Property,” a song marked by the easygoing gait and dark humor of “She’s Got You,” and again played note-perfect by Strait at his most coolly ironic.
George Strait, 'Ocean Front Property,’ #1, 1987
The late Keith Whitley looked like he was on his way to being one of the country greats when he moved over from the bluegrass world and cut his first Top 20 hit in 1985, “Miami, My Amy,” co-written by Cochran and his late-life collaborator, Dean Dillon, along with Royce Porter. Vern Gosdin was already recognized as a classic country singer when he teamed up to write with Cochran in the mid-‘80s and promptly added to his legend with “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” “Right in the Wrong Direction,” “Is It Raining at Your House,” “Who You Gonna Blame It On This Time” and other gems.
Keith Whitley, 'Miami, My Amy,' Whitley's first solo hit, 1985
In June 2009 Cochran was honored on his 50th anniversary as a songwriter with a party at Nashville’s BMI headquarters at which Merle Haggard (who was cutting Cochran songs as far back as the ‘70s) and Lee Ann Womack among the guests celebrating the occasion. The night before his passing, Cochran sang songs at his home with Jamey Johnson, Billy Ray Cyrus and another of his songwriting partners, Buddy Cannon.
Burl Ives performs Hank Cochran’s 'A Little Bitty Tear’ on The Johnny Cash Show
This past December, Cochran issued the following reminiscence of Christmases past.
"As a child, I lived with my grandparents and we were very poor. Every year I would hear the other kids talking about Christmas trees and presents—and I really didn't understand why we didn't have those things. We talked about Jesus, but His birthday wasn't a gift-giving occasion at our small home in Mississippi. One year when I was six or seven, I finally got up the nerve to ask my grandmother why we didn't celebrate Christmas like everyone else. Her answer was, ‘You just have to believe.’ Well, that was pretty heady thinking for a kid, but I wanted presents like all of the other kids, so I began to concentrate—and believe. That Christmas Eve, Grandmother reminded me of my promise to believe, and I went to bed that night praying for ‘Christmas’ with all my might. That year, my Uncle and my grandparents scrimped and saved to buy me a present. When I awoke on that magical Christmas morning, there was a stocking hung from the mantel, and inside, a toy gun and holster set. I was amazed! From that day forward, I have understood the power of believing—and that is a present I will forever cherish."
The previous June Cochran had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but was given a clean bill of health after a CT scan in September.
"I'm doing great right now," he added in his Yuletide statement. "The medicines are working and my family continues to encourage me. Those gifts are more than enough to fill my Christmas stocking this year!"
Merle Haggard, 'It's Not Love, But It's Not Bad, #1 country, 1972
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Eddy Arnold (left) and Hank Cochran at the recording session for ‘Make the World Go Away’ 1965, RCA Studios
“Make It Short, Make It Sweet, Make It Rhyme’
An Interview with Hank Cochran
Hank Cochran was interviewed by Doak Turner in the January 13, 2009 issue of American Songwriter. The complete interview is online here. Below are some excerpts:
Do you have a “hookbook” that you use for writing songs?
I do not have a hookbook or rhyming dictionary. I do not know where the ideas come from. Some of those lines come through me. I tell the co-writers, “That’s God-given.” I do not have a book of lines. Sometimes when I am going to sleep and get an idea I write it down, but usually do not go back to them. A couple weeks ago I wrote a gospel song—had the idea before going to sleep one night. I wrote the song a couple days later without the notes that I had written. Last week, I found the tablet that I wrote the idea on as I was looking for a phone number. Those ideas were in the song, but I did not use that tablet for the notes on the song. When you are going to sleep, your mind relaxes and those lyrics or ideas come into your mind. You’d better write them down.
‘Make it short, make it sweet and make it rhyme’ is a quote attributed to you. Where did you get that phrase?
Just my philosophy, such as nickel and pickle. It has always been with me. I’ve been in Nashville since January of 1960. As you can see, it has grayed me and scarred me.
‘Miami My Amy’ was a breakout song for Keith Whitley. How did that come about?
I got to know Keith before writing that song and that song was Keith Whitley’s first hit. I got to know him. Dean Dillon and I were on my boat in Florida. Dean and I would go and sit on a boat in Palm Beach. My son came to see us. My wife introduced my son, Donny, to a good looking young woman. Donny had to go back to California. He asked if he should stay with that girl. I told him I didn’t know. I could look at him and see myself at that young age. Her name was Amy. I told Dean, “Did you see the way Danny feels about that girl?” What do you think about putting it together in a song. “Miami My Amy” loves me after all kind of song. We wrote it!
How did you get it to Keith?
I just took “Miami My Amy” to Keith as we were friends. He and I even wore the same size boot. A friend of mine in Oklahoma made me a nice pair of boots. Keith told me he loved my boots. I told Keith Whitely, “Give me a number one song and I’ll give them to you.” He tried them on and they fit perfectly. I told him we may have that song right here for your new boots and we sang it to him! He recorded it. Keith got a new pair of boots a little while later when that song went up to No. 1 on the charts! It knocked me out as he and I were great friends. It really got to me when he passed. The guy that lived next to him was a friend of mine. He called me one morning and said he has bad news. I said, “When you call in the morning it is bad news.” The neighbor said, “They just took Keith out of his house… I thought I recently talked to Keith. He was drinking, an alcoholic…
I want a Willie story that hasn’t been printed.
OK—here’s one for you, kind of a road story. I was on the road with Willie and my boat was in the Bahamas. We had a couple days off and suggested we go to the boat. He called his wife and I made the reservations. We had to fly into Treasure Key and take a water taxi to the boat at Green Turtle. I told him “Don’t take any smoke or anything ‘cause there is a lot over there anyway. He put on a clean pair of jeans and put his dirty jeans in his duffle bag. I just packed three pair of jeans and bought T shirts on the island when I visited my boat. I told Willie not to check our luggage as I went to change my clothes. I came back and our luggage was checked with the airline. My briefcase was part of my luggage with my passport in it. I told him they will lose it for sure. Yeah—it got lost. They all knew me and Willie at customs, stamped some papers and let us go to my boat. After two days, Willie thought we should go get out luggage at the airport. I told the captain of the boat to take us to Treasure Key and wait for us to return. If anything happens send someone for us.
The luggage had come in and they guy sat Willies’ bag up on the counter. He asked Willie if that particular bag was his. He asked when pulling a bag out of Willie’s jeans that were in the bag, “Mr. Nelson, what does this look like to you?” Willie said, “Kinda looks like marijuana to me.” The gentleman then said, “Mr. Cochran, what does this look like to you” and I said, “Looks like I need a drink” [laughs]. They had to call the police from Cooperstown—only ten miles away. The customs officer said, “I didn’t know this was Willie’s bag and I have already called the police in Cooperstown. Well, they took us to Cooperstown. I asked if they were going to put us in jail. The policeman replied, “No, but you will have to make bail.” Neither Willie nor I had any money on us. We stood around outside and a friend of mine, Donny, went to the boat for me and got the $800.00. While we were waiting on Donny with the money we stood around and had a beer. Finally, Donny came back with the money. One of us made a mistake after they released us and asked if they would give us the marijuana back [laughs]! Willie jumped over a rail as we were going down the street back to the boat and sprained his ankle! The next day he was flying to the White House. He did a network TV show with Barbara Walters soon after the trip. One of the questions she asked if he had ever had a problem with smoking, Willie looked right in the camera and said, “No.”
Would you tell me about one of my favorite songs, ‘Make the World Go Away’?
That is one of my favorite songs too! I was at a movie with a girl, Fred Rogers secretary, when I was divorced and living in a little apartment in Madison, Tenn. I was intently listening to the lines in the movie, and the woman in the movie said something, “How do I look” and she said. The guy replies, “You look like you could make the world go away.” I grabbed my date’s hand and she asked, “Where are you going, the movie ain’t over,” and I said, “The hell it ain’t’ come on let’s go”! [laughs]. So I drug her out and we got in the car and I started to write the song and got my guitar out as soon as we got to my apartment. I thought I had a good one. I told my publisher, Mr. Smith the next day, “I think I got one.” He told me to play the song for him. He looked at me and said he thought it is the worst song that I had ever written. I told him, “Everyone wants to make the world go away and get it off their shoulders.”
I knew I was right and he was wrong. He told me I had proved him wrong before and I was determined to do it again. I proceeded and wrote the song lyrics on a big piece of paper and put a big one on each end of it put it on my desk so I would have to see that song every time I was in my office. I got it got cut in a week by a girl named Timi Yuro [a minor pop hit] and then by Ray Price [a No. 1 song].
Elvis Presley, ‘Make the World Go Away’
Billy Walker came in one day and said he is doing an album with Eddy Arnold and said he is looking for songs about the world, I told him I have one “Make The World Go Away” and he said that Eddy heard Ray Price’s version and could not sing that song with the high notes. I told him he has to hear the way that I wrote it. I had someone bring up my version that was recorded and Bill said Eddy could sing it like I had originally did it. A film crew from the Jimmy Dean Show happened to be in the studio when Eddy was recording the song. I told them it should be a single and they could put that part on the show, so they put it out as a single and the song quickly went to No. 1. Elvis Presley also cut the song. Timi Yuro sang the song to him and he loved it. Elvis wanted the publishing and even tried to buy our company to get the publishing on the song and I would not sell it to him. He loved the song anyway and cut it!
What advice would you give to songwriters?
I wish I had a way of telling all the songwriters how to do it. All I know for sure that I would tell you what I did and what has happened to me and you can do whatever you want to with it. It’s a long, hard and rocky road-and even now after 48 years of being in this town. Do not ever let anyone tell you that your song is no good if you believe in it. I am determined to prove someone wrong if they do not like my song. Have the determination and you will do it!