AT THE PIANO WITH CHARLES COCHRAN
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Cochran grew up on New York's East Side, the middle of three children in a family that had earned its money in the industrial carpet business. Summers were spent in Connecticut. Schooling took place at a prep institute in New Hampshire.
It was, Cochran admits, a very nice life -- just not for him: "I was never at all interested in that very conservative WASP milieu. There was nothing wrong with it. The food was good, the antiques were nice." But, he implies, it was a bore.
Cochran says he got his first hint of a different world when Gypsy Rose Lee, the legendary stripper, moved into the building next to his family's five-story Manhattan brownstone. She was "very flashy compared to the people I knew," he recalls. "From that moment on, I wanted to know about movie stars."
And movie music. He began playing the piano and proved himself a gifted enough student of popular song that he landed his own radio show in Connecticut in his teens. Soon thereafter, a two-year stint at the University of Miami -- he never graduated -- gave him a taste for the party life. He returned to New York ready to make his mark. It wasn't long before he began playing the clubs.
And it wasn't long before he went out to the West Coast. "I decided I wanted to go see Hollywood," he recalls of the trip that turned into a six-year sojourn.
It was there that Cochran caught the ear of music-biz types. He made his recording debut, the giddily titled album "I Sing, I Play, I'm Charlie Cochran," and then got signed to another deal with Fred Astaire's label.
"Charlie is instinctively a young man of good taste and good manners," wrote the Hollywood legend in his notes to "Presenting Charlie Cochran," the first of two albums Cochran recorded for Astaire. There was hope that Cochran might be seen as something of a pop-style crooner -- say, the next Jack Jones. But it wasn't meant to be.
Cochran suspects he was too jazz-oriented to garner mainstream attention. And he concedes he never made pushing his career a top priority, perhaps because he always had a small, though hardly significant, cushion of family money. "Other parts of my life have always been important to me," he says.
After California, Cochran returned to New York for more gigs and more partying. But he says the scene began to take its toll on him, particularly after Garland's death. After years of hard drinking, he was able to go sober -- and he's proud that he's remained that way for three decades.
But by the '70s and '80s, the cultural tide had shifted. Rock had replaced the American songbook as the country's musical vernacular. Cochran did his small part to stay current, including a Billy Joel or Barbra Streisand hit in his repertoire, but he knew he was fighting a lost cause.
"They would rhyme 'nine' and 'time.' It got very sloppy," he says of the new school of songwriters, revealing a general distaste for rock. "In the pre-television days, it was a more literate world."
So, he said goodbye to it all, packing his bags and moving to South Florida in 1987. He chose the area precisely for what it's not -- a nightcrawlers' haven, a see-and-be-seen place (except for Palm Beach, which he generally avoids).
Instead, it's an area where he can indulge his small pleasures:
taking a 3-mile run through his El Cid neighborhood, scouring the antique shows at the South Florida Fairgrounds for old movie magazines and sheet music, even leaving on the spur of the moment and taking a long train ride -- to New York, New Orleans or California. As for companionship, there's Bonnie and his circle of friends.
"It's a full life, strangely enough," Cochran says.
But perhaps not full enough, because a few years ago, he began taking those baby steps out of retirement, a move that was applauded by those who knew the talent he was hiding. "He's not been heard in so long a time, maybe it's the right time," says Short.
It's a point echoed by James Gavin, a New York-based cabaret expert who's written the notes to Cochran's two recent CDs -- a collaboration with jazz pianist Bill Mays and a repackaged edition of "Haunted Heart," a 1983 album with Richard Rodney Bennett.
When Gavin heard Cochran in the city last year at Danny's Skylight Room, a new club, he says it was like stepping back into the heyday of New York cabaret.
"Everyone was thrilled. (There was) that happy feeling where people don't want to leave after the show. They want to chat with the star," he says. "I wasn't around in the old days, but it felt like the old days."
Closer to home, Cochran has performed at Palm Beach's Royal Room, where he did a two-weekend gig last month. While he jokes that the audience was largely composed of local friends with little clue as to his musical skills, he still worked the room like a quiet pro.
"The aura was so wonderful," says Steve Caras, the local photographer and retired dancer who counts Cochran as a pal. "It's like the music was the icing on the cake."
The key to Cochran's gift is that ease -- he's got an almost conversational way with a song, putting a lyric across without any sense of ego. (A better contrast to Cochran than Short might be Michael Feinstein, an artist who never lets you forget that Michael Feinstein is singing the song.) If anything, what seems to motivate Cochran is an encyclopedic knowledge of the music and a desire to share it before it's forgotten.
Songs like "My Old Flame," a tune first recorded by Mae West, with a "worn, borderline sleazy feeling," as he puts it. Or "You Stepped Out of a Dream," a movie musical number that combines a swinging backbeat with a seductive chord progression.
"A lot of those old songs... I remember when they were new songs and they were on the charts," he says.
But Cochran fosters no illusions that his comeback will lead to any kind of mega success. He's content to play in public a few times a year, to give the old songs their due. He speaks of composers and lyricists the way sports fanatics talk of favorite athletes.
His all-star team? Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and James Van Heusen. Cochran has to tune into satellite radio to hear their tunes nowadays.
Or he can simply go back to his piano, keeping Bonnie entertained as she rests in a comfy chair. "Nobody has pianos anymore," he says regretfully.
But he does. And he's going to play it a little while longer.
AT THE PIANO WITH CHARLES COCHRAN
by Charles Passy
Palm Beach Post
August 10, 2003