AT THE PIANO WITH CHARLES COCHRAN
by Charles Passy
Palm Beach Post
August 10, 2003
For Charles Cochran, there is nothing like a timeless tune from the American songbook.
Take Johnny Mercer's "I Thought About You," a number the pianist and singer plays at will, easing from the first verse into the chorus: "I took a trip on a train and I thought about you..." It's a love ballad that's smart and comforting all at once.
"It's charming," says Cochran, before pausing to consider how antiquated that sounds. "'Charm' is a word we never hear anymore," he adds.
But it's the very sort of word that peppers a conversation with Cochran, a 66-year-old veteran New York nightclub entertainer who moved to Palm Beach County more than a decade ago. And his speech reflects his nostalgic point of view.
After all, here's a guy who played the New York cabaret scene during its glory years in the '50s and '60s. He was with Judy Garland in the troubled days before her death -- and heard her sing "Over the Rainbow" one final, bittersweet time. He recorded albums for Fred Astaire's label and knew fellow singers Nina Simone and Anita O'Day. He was even married to a Playboy playmate.
And here's a guy who, after putting his career on hold in the mid-'80s, is starting to sing the old songs once more at gigs in New York and Palm Beach.
It's quite an unexpected turn for an artist who many say never got the shot he deserved in his prime.
Certainly, Cochran traveled in the same circle as O'Day, Simone and Garland. And his gigs were duly noted by The New York Times, which said in 1978 that Cochran was "one of the more individualistic singing pianists around town, a more sober-sided variant of Bobby Short's brash exuberance."
Even Short, the New York cabaret legend and longtime friend, will tell you he's jealous of Cochran's natural talent.
"He's blessed with that easy, easy projection. I've always envied Charlie's ease with singing," Short says by phone. "It shouldn't be difficult to watch a performer, you know?"
But for all the joy that Cochran has generated, he's just as much an observer. Sitting in his West Palm Beach home, decorated in what he calls "scrapbook eclectic" style and shared with his faithful Bonnie, a six-year-old Labrador-Border Collie mix, he's happy to share a few recollections: The memories remain as sharply etched as the lines in his gracefully aged face.
A different era
He recalls the clubs he played in New York and beyond, with names that speak to a different era: the Playroom, the Apartment, the Memory Lane. Or the characters who inhabited them, such as the "cheaters" -- men who cheated on their wives and hit the hotspots with their mistresses -- and the prostitutes.
Each group had its own special musical requests, songs that were dubbed "ten-dollar tunes" because that's the amount you tipped to hear them played.
"The hooker tune was 'Misty.' The hookers loved that," Cochran says.
But more than anything, Cochran remembers the singers he befriended or worked alongside. He met Simone when she was just getting her start in New York and they shared billing at a small club: "I thought she was fascinating, not so much as a great musician but a terrifically mesmerizing showwoman.... If there was no one there, it wouldn't make any difference. She would sing just as movingly to one person as to 100."
O'Day was another colleague-turned-buddy, whom he met when she interrupted a gig of his and insisted he accompany her: "She came over to the piano and grabbed the mike after one of my songs and said, 'Sweet Georgia Brown in B-flat.' I proceeded to do the best I could amidst a little bit of flop sweat.... And then she started coming over to my house and we bonded very quickly."
Not that Cochran was tied to these women romantically. The closest he came to that was his brief marriage, while living in California for a six-year period, to Sally Todd, a B-movie actress who also had the distinction of being a Playboy playmate (Miss February 1957, to be precise -- Cochran keeps a framed copy of the centerfold hidden behind the washing machine, bringing it out for the occasional laugh.)
Though Cochran doesn't go into detail about his sexuality, he admits the union was more for appearance's sake than anything else. "You know what I say? If you're wondering about my sexuality, take a guess and most likely you'd be right," he jokes.
One special woman
And yet, there was one very special woman -- in a platonic sense, but special nonetheless -- in Cochran's life.
He first met Judy Garland when he was a teenager -- at a party in Palm Beach, of all places. It wasn't until decades later, however, that they made a strong connection. By then, Garland was down on her luck. She called Cochran looking for a place to stay in New York -- and he had a spare bedroom.
"Nobody was an icon then... You know what I mean?" Cochran says, trying to explain her fall from grace.
And so she stayed with him several times. On the morning of one visit, when she was feeling particularly low, she had him put the album of her famed Carnegie Hall concert on his phonograph. She sang along note for note -- "with gestures and the works," Cochran says -- for an audience that consisted of Cochran, his sister and his cleaning lady.
"We couldn't believe our ears. We had to pinch ourselves. It was a mind-bender at nine o'clock in the morning," he says. (Though he believes it spooked the cleaning lady: "I don't think she ever came back.")
But there's another performance that sticks in the memory. It was June 1969 and Garland was accompanying Cochran to hear O'Day at a nightspot in Greenwich Village. O'Day brought Cochran on stage for a number. Then, it was Garland's turn.
"She didn't know the key to 'Over the Rainbow.' Can you believe
that?" Cochran recalls.
It was the last time that Garland sang her signature song in public: She died two weeks later in London from a drug overdose. Cochran believes he was the first to hear the news, since he called Garland's then husband, Mickey Deans, just as Deans found her in the bathroom.
The irony is that all these scenes of life in the fast lane -- Cochran admits he drank heavily during this period -- made for a sharp contrast to the pianist and singer's blue-blood background.
Continues on Page 2: Privileged beginnings