This month our monthly Moscow rock’n’roll tribute concert at the Esse Café, focused on a female with one of the most amazing stories in rock’n’roll.
I arranged for the Marshmallows to perform at the concert, on 16th April. Regular readers of this column will know about them. They are a fabulous and beautiful female trio, who with their backing group perform brilliant and authentic 1950s style rock’n’roll. The concert was a great success and some of the photos you can see show the Marshmallows in action on 16/04/16.
It’s curious that the icon we were celebrating is not as well known as some of the other rockin’ legends from the 1950s. So here is the story of Sharon Sheeley. It’s a very exciting and very eventful tale, involving many of the greatest names in rock’n’roll history.
First of all here’s a brief resume of her achievements in rock’n’roll.
After beginning work as a model, she moved to Hollywood while still a teenager, with the aim of writing songs. Her first song “Poor Little Fool” became a huge number one hit for Ricky Nelson in 1958. Sheila was still only 18 and thus became the youngest woman ever to write an American number-one hit.
With the help of her agent Jerry Capehart, who was also Eddie Cochran’s manager, she followed up with another string of song-writing hits. She wrote “Love Again”, “Cherished Memories” and “Somethin’ Else” for Cochran. Richie Valens hit “Hurry Up” was also written by her around this time.
Later, in collaboration with musician/songwriter, Jackie DeShannon, she wrote many songs which went on to become big hits; for example, Brenda Lee’s “Dum Dum” and “Heart in Hand”, The Fleetwoods’ “He’s The Great Imposter”, and Irma Thomas’s “Breakaway”.
In 1964 with her then husband Jimmy O’Neill, she created the famous ABC-TV “Shindig” music show series, which was hugely popular for the 2 years it was aired.
The above gives some idea of her contribution to rock’n’roll. But her personal rock’n’life during these years was even more fascinating. Photos of her show that she was a very attractive young woman and it is absolutely clear she was very much sought after by the young men. At the age of 16 she drove to Hollywood where Elvis Presley was performing at a concert (her home was not far from Hollywood). She found out which hotel Elvis was staying at, hung out there and was able to contrive to catch his attention. She ended up spending time with him. This resulted in him meeting up with her whenever he was performing in the local area. This was to be the first of many attachments of Sharon’s to the big rock’n’roll stars. And you don’t get any bigger than Elvis. She later wrote about an incident with Elvis at that time, which gave an insight into his brooding unhappiness with the price he had to pay for his fame. He told her “Oh Sharon, it seemed so great, so wonderful at first. But now, I can do nothing. I can’t go with you any more when you invite me, not to the amusement park, I can’t go to the movies with you. I can’t go anywhere. Oh Sharon, my God, what have I done to myself.”
Her next entanglement to a star was with Ricky Nelson. She made contact with him a similar kind of way that she had with Elvis. And Ricky and Sharon spent some time together. Her next teenage involvement was with Don Everly from the Everly Brothers. This relationship was more serious than the others and they dated regularly. The other Everly brother, Phil, had tried to persuade Sharon not to pursue this affair, as Don was already married. Don eventually ended the relationship, leaving Sharon very, very upset.
She had always been interested in writing songs and it was just after the end of her time together with Don Everly that she sent her song “Poor Little Fool” to Ricky Nelson, for his consideration. It was inspired by her own feelings after Don had left her. The rest, as they say, is history – it became an all-time rock’n’roll classic.
She had already met Eddie Cochran during her time with Don Everly. Subsequently Jerry Capehart arranged a meeting between Cochran and Sheeley, to discuss her writing some songs for him. The business side of the meeting went well and she went on to write some of the most famous songs he recorded. On a personal level, the 2 of them fell in love and began a relationship that was to last right up to Eddie’s death. They were engaged to be married. During Cochran’s and Gene Vincent’s fateful tour of the UK, Sharon flew over to join them in April 1960.
She later revealed a fascinating story about something that occurred after her arrival in the UK to join Eddie, which tells a lot about the emotional trials and tribulations of the great Gene Vincent. On the tour Eddie had been very protective of Vincent, due to Gene’s permanently damaged leg as well as his hell-raising destructive life-style. Of course when Sharon arrived Eddie devoted more time to his fiancée and Gene became very resentful about this. One evening as Eddie and Sharon were about to leave their hotel room for a night on the town in London, the hotel phone rang. Eddie answered it and was informed that Gene had just cut his wrists in his room. Sharon continued the story: “Yes, Gene indeed slit his wrists, oh, not so deep or long that it would have killed him, oh no, just enough to prevent us [i.e. Sharon and Eddie] from spending any alone time together. My feelings ran the gamut of shock and horror, to outrage when I realised that Gene was in no danger; then on to genuine sorrow for him. How sad that he felt so desperate that he would fake suicide to prevent Eddie from leaving for an evening with me.”
It was towards the end of the tour that tragedy struck. Driving back in a taxi from a concert both Cochran and Vincent had been performing in, the taxi was involved in a collision. The speeding car blew a tyre and crashed into a lamp post. Cochran, seated in the back, threw himself over Sharon to protect her. He was then thrown from the car when the door flew open. He died the following day of severe head injuries. Vincent survived the crash, but his already permanently damaged leg from an earlier accident became even worse as a result of his injuries. The taxi driver was convicted of dangerous driving but got off with a small fine. As for Sharon, she suffered a broken pelvis.
The loss of Eddie was devastating to her. He was the love of her life. The lyrics of some of the songs she had written for Cochran, such as “Cherished Memories”, “Somethin’ Else” and “Love Again”, had been inspired by their feelings for each other. After she recovered enough physically from the crash, she returned to America and continued to write a huge number of songs, many of which also became big hits.
She married a DJ from Los Angeles, Jimmy O’Neill. Although the marriage didn’t last, during the time they were together they created the American TV music show “Shindig”. This show was an iconic one in the mid-1960s. All the top rockin’ acts appeared on it, for example the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, as well as of course the legendary rock’n’rollers from the 1950s. She got to know all these stars personally.
After her divorce, she moved away from the music scene, apart from public appearances at Eddie Cochran remembrance conventions; this was further testimony to the impact Eddie had had on her. She died in 2002 of a cerebral hemorrhage, leaving behind a son from her marriage.
Sharon Sheeley used her talent, personality and good looks to break into what was especially then a male-dominated world of rock’n’roll. As a result of her success, she wrote some of the greatest songs in rockin’ history; Thanks Sharon, for those “cherished memories”.