Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Saturday, September 11, 2010

“Summertime Blues: A True Rock’n’Roll Adventure with Eddie Cochran” by Sharon Sheeley (Ravenhawk Books)

(NOTE: This review is based on an uncorrected advance review copy. The book itself will be issued on November 1, 2010)

Sharon Sheeley (1940-2002; sometimes known as “Shari” Sheeley) peaked young. When she was 18, she was at the top of the pop-songwriting world, having written Ricky Nelson’s first #1 hit, “Poor Little Fool.” About two weeks after her 20th birthday, she was plunged into deep despair after barely surviving an auto accident, which killed her fiancé, rockabilly legend Eddie Cochran. Although she managed to piece her career back together in the years following the accident, forming a successful songwriting duo with Jackie DeShannon, these two milestones came to define Sharon Sheeley’s life for all time.

This autobiography, which would appear to be appearing in print for the first time, tells of Ms. Sheeley’s life up to and including the aftermath of the accident. In the process, we meet some of the biggest and most colorful rock’n’roll and pop stars of the late 1950’s, and get more than a few glimpses into their off-stage personalities. It may or may not be a “tell-all” – unless, of course, rockabilly singers were as innocent in their flirtations as they are portrayed to be here; it was, after all, a very different, more respectful era – but neither does she gloss over some of the negative aspects of your favorite artists.

For instance, we are introduced to Don Everly of the Everly Brothers, dating Ms. Sheeley without deigning to tell her he was already married. Indeed, Don comes off as a rather cantankerous young fellow with a huge chip on his shoulder. (His brother, Phil Everly, on the other hand, comes across as kind, helpful, a real sweetheart of a young fellow, who would do anything to aid a friend in need.) There have been tales of Paul Anka’s obnoxiously massive ego circulating around the music world for decades, and we see the beginnings of this right from the outset of his teen-idol career, when he was still a teenager himself, coping with so-called overnight success. (We are, however, informed of Anka’s kinder side as well.) But the real “villain” of this book is Gene Vincent, a paranoid schizophrenic, manic-depressive megalomaniac of the first order. (Keep in mind I am not a trained psychologist; but even so.)

Before you get the idea that all 50’s rock’n’rollers were abnormally troubled young men, let me quickly point out that most of the young heroes Sharon Sheeley encountered seem like normal, average everyday 1950’s American youth. To be sure, she meets Elvis Presley just as he is discovering that he no longer has a private life. Sheeley’s sympathetic portrait of a polite, friendly, yet increasingly trapped young Southern boy who is becoming afraid to look out hotel windows at mobs of screaming girls is one of the most touching parts of the book. Ricky Nelson as she encounters him off-screen is the exact same Ricky Nelson we watched every week on t.v. (The same goes for Ozzie as well.) Buddy Holly is insecure, Ritchie Valens unprepared for stardom, and so on. Perhaps there are not many surprises in regard to most of the performers we read about here, but it’s nice to have our pre-conceptions supported by eyewitness reports.
Needless to say, Sheeley devotes the largest chunk of space to Eddie Cochran, whom she actively pursued even when he seemed disinterested. He comes across as a complex man, in many ways quite mature for his age. On the other hand, we see him practical jokes on unsuspecting friends, pranks often bordering on cruelty. On the whole, though, Cochran is portrayed as a virtuoso electric guitarist who is all for business, who would rather have spent his time working in the studio or jamming with friends than becoming a star performer, or engaging in a normal private life for that matter. He jealously guarded his relationship with Sheeley, and forbade her to tour with him – until the fateful final tour of England. Much has been written about the accident that caused Cochran’s death, including many downright apocryphal tales. Sheeley covers the incident with the keen eye of a journalist, until the final moments, in which she was so severely injured herself that she had no real memory of it. One of the most affecting chapters of the book details her long, painful recovery amidst her loss of the man she was supposed to marry once they arrived home in California.

One cannot help but notice that she has very little to say about her life post-Cochran. She talks about her writing partnership with DeShannon, but only briefly. We learn that she later married (and divorced) L.A. disc jockey Jimmy O’Neill, best known nationally as host of the mid-60’s pop-music TV show “Shindig”, but that’s about all we learn. Sheeley retreated from the music business in the late 60’s, but we never really find out why, or what she did with her life beyond that point. She shared what she wanted to share, and then stopped. I mean no disrespect, because I am quite pleased with what she did give us, but I would have liked more.

Because this was reviewed from an advance copy, there is no index. Because the announced page count is greater than what I received, I would assume an index would appear in the final volume, and it will be helpful to future researchers, I’m sure. There are typos sprinkled here AND there, but these will no doubt be caught before final publication as well. There is also a lengthy section, nearly a hundred pages, of photographs, posters, and other “memorabilia” of people who figure into the narrative (again focused primarily on Eddie Cochran), most of which I had not seen before.

Overall, this will be an entertaining and informative addition to anyone's 50’s rock’n’roll bookshelf.

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