Interview with Charles (Charlie) Cochran
Charles Cochran is a singer and pianist. Fred Astaire wrote that “I think one of the main reasons for Charlie Cochran’s success is his devotion to his art. It seems that he takes hold of a song as if he owns it… .” Rex Reed stated that “His songs are stylish and sophisticated, and so is he.” He played the New York cabaret scene during its glory years in the 1950s and 1960s, at which time he knew fellow singers Nina Simone and Anita O’Day. Fred Astaire invited Cochran to record for Ava Records, a label Astaire created in 1962. Cochran’s discography includes Presenting Charlie Cochran (Ava Records, 1963), ‘Round Midnight (Ava Records, 1964), Haunted Heart (Audiophile Records, 1982), Evening Serenade (Cumberland Records, 1999), Charles Cochran Meets Bill Mays (Audiophile Records, 2001), The Saturn Session (5 Pianist/Singers, 2001), and Live in New York (Lanier Hall, 2006). He has played Gotham’s Playroom, the Apartment, the Memory Lane, the Tender Trap, the Living Room, Jillys, Tavern on the Green, Danny’s Skylight Room, and the Metropolitan Room, among others. His admirers have included Anita O’Day, Bobby Short, Lee Wiley, Jeri Southern, and Judy Garland, who was his house guest in the late 1960s. Cochran’s friendship with Garland is recounted in Gerald Frank’s Judy (Da Capo Press, 1975), John Meyer’s Heartbreaker (Doubleday, 1983; Citadel Press, 2006), and Gerald Clarke’s Get Happy (Random House, 2001). Cochran currently resides in West Palm Beach. In 2006, he was honored with the “Return to Cabaret” Bistro Award for his shows at Danny’s Skylight Room.
Judy Room: How did you first meet Judy Garland?
Charles Cochran: I met Judy Garland for the first time during the spring of 1952 in Palm Beach, Florida. I was fifteen and on Easter vacation, staying with my grandmother. My father took me to a small dinner party at Tony Pulitzer’s house, and there were Judy and her new husband, Sid Luft, sitting on the floor next to the piano (Bill Harrington had been hired to play). Judy asked me to sit with her, was very friendly, and delighted that I had seen her show at the Palace (she had just closed in it and was taking a well-earned vacation). She asked me what number I had liked the most and I told her The Palace medley. I thought she looked just beautiful, freckled and tanned – very natural. I was thrilled of course. The other guests — none in show business, although Mary Sanford had played in silents (as Mary Duncan) before she married Laddie Sanford and retired — kept telling Garland they loved her, and I had never heard this kind of warm exuberance before, especially in a roomful of “non-pro” Wasps! The vibes were wonderful that night.
Fourteen years elapsed before we crossed paths again. At this point (’66) I was living in L.A. and my dear friend, actor John Carlyle, was giving a party at his little pad on Norma Place in West Hollywood. There was Judy, surrounded with guys, pals of John’s. Hedy Lamarr was also there, brought by Robert Osborne. I don’t recall any other women at this small gathering, but I remember both ladies dancing (to records) and at one point doing a little step they had done together in Ziegfeld Girl. I ended up hanging out with Hedy more than Judy on this evening, but visited with Judy too (I didn’t mention to her then that we had met when I was a child). This evening was a very long, boozy gathering, and great fun. I remember being slightly surprised the next day that I had made it over the canyon to my house in Sherman Oaks.
Later, after I moved to NYC in late ’66, I spent a lot of time with her. She needed a place to stay on several occasions and I had a two bedroom pad on 84th and Lexington. It was a crash pad for quite a few talented people, especially Anita O’Day, who came to stay for six months when she was working the Half Note in Greenwich Village. When Judy came to stay the first time, I knew her only slightly, but we became close friends very quickly. I loved playing and singing for her, and she enjoyed letting me accompany her. It was always fun hearing her do tunes that were not in her usual repertoire (notably “Everytime We Say Goodbye”). She loved Irving Berlin’s stuff, especially his simple, old-fashioned ballads like “Always.” She taught me to play “How About Me?” explaining the downward chromatics of the tune. She wasn’t musically literate, but was able to sketch it for me in words so that eventually we kind of got it. Her talent as a diseuse was very evident when she very quietly sang a ballad in my small living room. When I asked her who her favorite pianist-singer was, she answered, to my surprise, “Kay Thompson.” I told her what a great actress I thought she was, and she kind of chortled, “Well I always thought so!” We went out occasionally, once to hear Bobby Short at the Carlyle, and another time to Jilly’s to catch Bobby Cole (I remember they did a wonderful impromptu duet of Van Heusen and Cahn’s “The Last Dance.”). The last time she stayed with me on Lexington Avenue, we ventured down to the Half Note Jazz Club on Spring & Hudson to hear Anita O’Day. Dave Frishberg was house pianist that night, and everybody sang. Anita and I did our duet of “Mean to Me,” Judy sang “Day In – Day Out,” Judy and Anita performed a jazzy, improvised “April Showers,” and finally Judy ended with “Over the Rainbow.” I believe that this was the last time she sang in public, and she sounded wonderful. The room was only half filled.
Were you a Garland fan prior to meeting her?
Yes, I was a big fan always – right from Meet Me in St. Louis, which I saw when I was about eight. At that young age I thought that was how she looked, with the long auburn hair and the period dresses. How surprised I was when she appeared on the cover of Life with shortish, brown, curly hair! I started buying her records whenever I could. She had something that fascinated me that I couldn’t put my finger on, and still can’t.
In that you are a pianist and singer, how would you describe Judy Garland the musician?
In short, marvelous – could not be improved upon in my book. Like Bing Crosby, she didn’t read music but had a great ear. Her sense of rhythm, intonation, and phrasing were spot on. She was an innate musician of the first order.
You are an expert on the Great American Songbook. What place would you say Garland has in the history of classic American pop?
I couldn’t begin to assess what her place would be in classic American pop. She was unique as a personality, actress, and singer. She influenced many, both male and female. One of the leaders unquestionably.
What songs do you wish she had sung?
I would have loved to hear Judy perform “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” “Folks Who Live On the Hill,” and “Sing, Baby, Sing,” the old thirties Alice Faye number. At the end of her life she heard and adored a Cy Coleman song called “Sometime When You’re Lonely,” and said that she wanted to learn it. Cy had written the lyrics as well as the music, and it had been recently recorded by our friend Claire Hogan.
You worked with Mickey Deans, Judy’s last husband, in the 1960s at Jilly’s in New York, and were friends with him until his death in 2003. You even wrote his obituary in The New York Times. Could you describe him? Do you think he was good for Judy? Did he ever talk with you about Judy after her death?
I got to know Mickey Deans when we worked opposite each other at Jilly’s on 52nd St.. The year was 1962, and I was living in Los Angeles but visiting NYC that winter. We were ships that passed in the night during that gig. But the following year when he came to Hollywood he looked me up at a club I was working on LaCienaga Bld. called Gazzari’s, and we instantly connected. We became instant buddies and traveled often together: to Bermuda, Paris, Reno, Miami, etc., etc.. He was great, sympathetic company to me, and a continual source of laughs. He was funny, kind, very smart, versatile (he could fix a car or a TV or write a great jazz arrangement, and play doctor if he had to). I came down with acute appendicitis in NYC one night, and he saw me through to the operating room and recovery room afterwards. And people don’t realize what a wonderfully entertaining singer-pianist he was. He reminded me of Buddy Greco with an Erroll Garner influence in his playing. His “big guns” were “The Right to Love,” “Always and Always” and “Bye, Bye Blackbird,” and he delivered the material out of the side of his mouth with a New Jersey accent. He could have been really good if he had persevered and taken his music a little more seriously, but he was easily sidetracked by many interests besides music, especially medicine, machines and electronics. I always thought he had loads of charisma, and could understand why so many were infatuated with him. We saw less of each other after about 1975 and he moved to Cleveland. I kind of pulled the plug on drinking and started to lead a super-healthy lifestyle (it was that or go down the tubes). But I did have lunch with him in Palm Beach a few months before he died. He had suffered several serious heart attacks over the past few years. We drank decaffeinated coffee and there were no drinks or cigarettes by that point in time. It was a wonderful, peaceful last visit with lots to talk about, none of it about Miss Garland. In fact I hardly ever talked about her to him after her shockingly abrupt demise. Do I think he was good for Judy? I can’t judge. He did the very best he could under the circumstances, and I know that the two of them had some wonderful, fun times together. I think for the rest of his life he was kind of in shock at what happened. I wish more people had known him as I did. I always found him to be a splendid guy.
You are a friend of John Meyer, whom Judy was intimate with in late 1968. Do you find that his memoir Heartbreaker is a good reflection of Judy’s life at that time?
Yes, John Meyer is a good friend of mine – has been for many years in fact. Judy introduced us and his description of how we met is accurate, although I was kvelling over John’s music and talent, not John! Oh well… .I thought his book was right on the money, and has a 100% ring of truth to it. I wrote him a note after it was published and told him how much I liked it.
Of all the biographies written about Judy since her death, which one do you find the best? Why?
I liked Gerald Frank’s Judy. It was extremely well documented and a very good read. I also found that Vincente Minnelli’s memoir I Remember It Well very worthwhile, especially his descriptions of his time with Judy. All John Fricke’s books are beautiful and interesting.
If you had to choose a few of Garland’s greatest moments – whether on screen, stage, record or television – what would they be?
My favorite Garland moments are as follows, off the top of my head: the “Friendly Star” sequence from Summer Stock. I adore the song, her rendition, the cinematography and lighting, her hair and makeup, Gene Kelly’s reaction – everything about it – I watch it over and over. Summer Stock is my special pet among her films. In fact, when I see the year 1950 on a page, I often think, ah, the year of Summer Stock! I admire greatly everything about the “In the Valley” opening number from The Harvey Girls. I showed it to Judy in my apartment on a 16mm projector, and she loved the song and sequence too. On TV, I am crazy about the song “Lorna” as performed by Judy to her daughter. Perfect in all departments, I think, and Judy nailed it. There was a show from her series where she features World War I songs (“Dear Little Pal of Mine” was one) that I can watch over and over. And last but not least, the montage-medley of old-time Berlin songs such as “Ragtime Violin” in Easter Parade that she did with Astaire. She and Mr. A. should have been eternally proud of that thrilling number.
You haven’t given an interview about your experiences with Judy Garland in about twenty years. Why not?
Why haven’t I done an interview for over twenty years? For one thing, I am seldom asked. More importantly, I haven’t particularly wanted to look back on that chapter of my life. With all the madness and excitement of it, it wasn’t a very happy period for me: too many cigarettes, vodkas, and not enough fresh air — none of this is a reflection of Judy, but the life I myself was living at the time, whether she was with me or not. I may be a whole lot older, but I’m much happier now than when I was in my madcap youth. In the words of the great Cole Porter: “I Sleep Easier Now.” And last but not least, I was privileged to spend time with this great lady who was even more riveting privately than she was on screen and on stage. And those times were, for the most part, personal, and blurred by a memory that has been dimmed by time.
Have you seen End of the Rainbow? If so, what did you think of it? If not, do you intend to?
No, I don’t plan to see End of the Rainbow. After all, I was there in London during the timeframe the play depicts, having made the trip over with Judy and Mickey (I was to be Mickey’s best man, though I had to leave before the red tape cleared and Johnnie Ray stepped in) and I remember her marvelous, modulated, not over-the-top opening night performance at Talk of the Town, and her kindness and consideration to me personally. I was at the Ritz Hotel, too, and, although there were a few technical and paperwork difficulties involved with finally putting on the show, we succeeded. I recall no scenes or tantrums from anyone, just a lot of nervous energy and hard work. My healthy instincts tell me I can skip Rainbow and be very happy. Instead, I have bought tickets to Linda Lavins’s new hit The Lyons, which I know I’ll enjoy, and which doesn’t have a back story for me.
How do you remember Judy Garland?
I remember her charm, her dynamic personality, her sense of humor, and her skill in being a great listener. She was also absolutely brilliant. Much of the time there was no one more pleasurable or exciting to be around.
In closing, three anecdotes:
After a performance in a seedy little club I was working, Judy who was out front with Mickey, told me I was very good. I winced and said, no, I sang badly that night. She instantly corrected me and said, “Remember one thing: when someone compliments you. Just say thank you.” I have never forgotten that good advice.
She learned her brand new Talk of the Town opener, “I Belong to London,” material that Stan Freemen gave her before we left New York, in a single two-hour period the afternoon before her opening. I watched goggle-eyed as it took form upstairs at the Ritz, with Mickey coaching her at the piano. She ended up being letter-perfect. Here was a good example of her photographic memory.
One morning at nine in the morning (we had stayed up all night), she donned my bathrobe, put on some lipstick, and put on her Carnegie Hall concert LP. She let the overture play, then proceeded to serenade three of us – my sister, my cleaning lady, and me – with half a dozen of the concert’s selections. She included an entrance and bows.
P.S. – Bessie, my Irish cleaning lady, was so shocked she never came to work for me again.
© 2012 JudyGarlandNews.com (TheJudyRoom.com)