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Wayne Cochran, 78, extraordinary showman of ’60s rhythm-and-blues

Miami Herald/AP/file 1995

Mr. Cochran turned to preaching in his 40s. He was the born-again pastor of the Voice of Jesus ministry near Miami.

By Matt Schudel Washington Post 

WASHINGTON — 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.’’

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Mr. Cochran died Nov. 21 at his home in Miramar, Fla. He was 78. The cause was cancer, said a grandson, Jason.

Mr. 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 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 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. ‘‘We were all about performing,’’ Mr. Cochran said in 1997. ‘‘We had lines waiting outside clubs for basically 25 years.’’

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In Las Vegas, where he once made $14,000 a week, Mr. 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.

Whenever he was onstage, Mr. Cochran was unmistakably the center of attention. His platinum blond pompadour towered 6 inches or more above his head, like a centurion’s helmet constructed of cotton candy. He modeled his look after Marilyn Monroe and a wrestler from the 1950s, Gorgeous George.

A full-time hairdresser traveled with Mr. Cochran to keep his bouffant mound of hair from drooping during high-energy performances that sometimes lasted until dawn.

Mr. Cochran had a raspy power saw of a voice, accompanied by a dazzling array of dance moves, spins, and slides. He sang soul standards, as well as original tunes, including ‘‘Goin’ Back to Miami,’’ ‘‘Get Down With It,’’ and ‘‘No Rest for the Wicked.’’

During his raucous performances, Mr. Cochran walked across tables and bars and sometimes fell to his knees, seemingly overcome by emotion, only to rise again, revived by the sheer force of his music.

‘‘Blessed with a scorching, soulful voice and a flair for the theatrical,’’ Leggett wrote, ‘‘he burned through everything he sang with an intensity that should have made him an international superstar. It didn’t happen.’’

Mr. Cochran’s records never became big hits, and life on the road took its toll. Drugs and marital problems left Mr. 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 Mr. Cochran felt the urge to sing.

‘‘I believe in the power of music,’’ he said. ‘‘If you don’t want to get ecstatic, don’t come to this church.’’

‘‘Last Kiss’’ became a hit in 1964 for J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers and again in 1999 for Pearl Jam, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts both times.

Mr. Cochran seldom performed the song himself, especially after becoming enamored of the music of Redding, Brown, and other Georgia-bred soul singers. He played bass on some of Redding’s early recordings.

His first marriage, to Inez Newton, ended in divorce. He was married twice to his second wife, the former Monica Powell, who died in February. Their daughter, Diane, died more than 10 years ago.

He leaves two children from his first marriage, Cynthia Warford and Christopher; a sister; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

During a 1982 appearance on ‘‘Late Night With David Letterman,’’ Mr. Cochran described the raspy vocal quality needed to sing the blues.

‘‘You gotta sound like you’re hurtin’ a little,’’ he said. ‘‘I used to tell people, ‘Just tie yourself to a donkey, let him drag you for about six months across a desert, when you stand up, you can sing the blues.’ ’’