Monday, September 26, 2011

Little Joe Cook: "Us music guys are messy"

Written by Camille Dodero for the Boston Phoenix in 2005.

Part 4: ‘Mine’

Little Joe Cook flings open the front door of his Framingham ranch house with a pit bull in his grip and a black cloth knotted around his head like Aunt Jemima’s kerchief. The dog is Fate, a friendly pooch he got from a granddaughter in Philadelphia. Though Fate snuggles with Cook in bed and whines when they’re apart, it was Joanne Cook who chose the dog’s moniker. "It wasn’t me, "Cook huffs. " I wouldn’t name it no Fate!"
In the kitchen, there are stamped envelopes, CD jewel boxes, spiral notebooks, crumpled invitations, paper napkins, unfolded bills, and a dog leash strewn across the table. "My wife gets mad because I mess up the table," he mumbles. "But, you know, us music guys are messy."

Hiding among the clutter is a mimeographed sheet listing the dates of Cook’s 1960 tour with B.B. King. There’s also a page of graphs representing the Billboard chart progressions of songs that start with the letter "P" ; "Peanuts" sits near Elvis’s " Peace in the Valley " and Freddie McCoy’s " Peas ’n’ Rice. " Deeper in the pile is a blue plastic pillbox divided into 28 compartments — a week’s supply of Cook’s medication. The slots labeled bedtime specify 8 to 10 p.m.; many nights, he hasn’t even started his Cantab shift by 10 o’clock.

Cook likes to answer questions with objects. When asked how he’s feeling, Cook says, "Good. I’ve started on a fruit diet. I ate fruit this morning. I ate a banana.” He spies a banana on the counter and points. "See?" He rolls his chair over to the refrigerator, swings open the door, and pulls out a plastic-wrapped container of cantaloupe slices. "And I had, what you call that?" Cantaloupe?" Yeah, I ate that. And a pear. That’s all I ate. "The refrigerator door is still open.

When asked about In God We Trust, his still-in-progress CD submerged in the confusion of his kitchen table, Cook disappears into the cellar and returns with a boom box. On the cover of the disc, his face is superimposed over an American flag. The packaging describes the collection as " a patriotic touch of gospel " ; this means Cook overhauled a couple of old songs and retrofitted them for the current international climate. " Say a Prayer for the Boys Over There "used to be" Say a Prayer for the Boys in Korea" ; the respectful antiwar anthem "Mr. Bush in the White House Chair" is an unintentionally hilarious overhaul of the Jimmy Carter tribute "Mr. Peanut in the White House Chair."

After the record is finished, Cook points to the radio. It’s tuned to WODS Oldies 103.3 and playing Sonny and Cher’s "I Got You Babe. " "They play everybody else’s record but mine," he mopes. "I get royalties from Philadelphia, Tennessee, New York. I don’t know why they don’t play my record here. I listen all the time. I tell some of my fans to call in." ("Fifties music is no longer a focus, "explains WODS-FM programming director Greg Strassell in an e-mail." WODS now features music mostly from 1964-1975.")

Cook’s home is a boxy place with brown shutters, a fusty basement studio, and lots of mirrors. Mirrors line cabinets and cover an entire front-room wall. Where there aren’t mirrors, there are images of the Cook family: graduation photos of 19-year-old Joe Jr., Cook’s son with Joanne; a painting of Cook wearing glasses with peanut-shaped lenses; Joanne’s painted portrait.

Joanne is both the cover model for Cook’s Lady from the Beauty Shop (Beantown International) and the inspiration for the song of the same name. In the dated picture on the record sleeve, she’s a beaming, shiny-faced girl nearly eclipsed by a bouffant perm. She’s obviously much younger than her husband.

"Don’t put her age in there," Cook snaps when asked. She’s younger, right? "Yep," he grunts. "There’s a big difference."

Cook cites his greatest accomplishment as his Apollo appearance. "They told me, ‘Little Joe, you make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.’ And they’re right. Apollo was a hard audience to accept you. They’d boo you off in a minute. "He swears he wasn’t nervous." It was just like eating, picking up your fork and stuffing it in. " Back then, he was playing to a different crowd — mostly black folks — and now he’s playing to a gaggle of white college kids. Cook isn’t fazed. "It doesn’t matter," he says. " I’m out there to make some money."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Little Joe Cook: Splish Splash, The Apollo

Written by Camille Dodero for the Boston Phoenix in 2005.

Part 3: ‘My Time Ain’t Long’

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "legend"as an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical. " There are plenty of unverified stories swirling around Little Joe Cook. One anecdote that often gets printed in the local press is a tale about how Bobby Darin offered the song " Splish Splash " to Cook, who’d already hit it big with "Peanuts." "He wrote that song for me and I told him to sing it instead," says Cook. " I went on a tour, came back, and heard that song playing everywhere. I was kicking myself."

Official Bobby Darin archivist Jimmy Scalia can’t confirm the story, so he asks Harriet "Hesh" Wasser, one of Darin’s best friends. "When I presented the story to her, she did not know of this to be true," he writes in an e-mail." She remembers Bobby writing the song and taking it to Atlantic. She also felt that if Bobby had someone in mind it would probably be Fats Domino. So we’re not saying that this didn’t happen, we’re just simply saying that we have no proof that it did."

Then there’s the tale of how Cook tried to record "The Twist" before Hank Ballard or Chubby Checker did, but it was too randy for his record company. "The Sensational Nightingales wrote ‘The Twist’ and they gave it to me in 1955 or ’56, "Cook says." Later, I took it to my record company. And they wouldn’t let me put it out. They said it was too suggestive. Then the Nightingales gave it to [Hank Ballard]."

Nightingales tenor JoJo Wallace can confirm this. "Before I accepted Jesus, I was doing rock ’n’ roll and blues," he says. "I never will forget it. During that time, we were courting two little girls and we were singing to them, ‘Come on baby, let’s do the twist,’ so they’d shake and spin and dance ... that’s how we wrote the song. "Wallace says they’d sing the ditty for friends and acquaintances and eventually, it got passed along." Joe Cook heard it too and he got on fire. We said, ‘Help yourself.’ We didn’t know anything about any copyrighting."

Other stories have more official verification. "Let’s Do the Slop," the single released before "Peanuts," was a regional hit in Philadelphia and New York; the strength of its popularity scored the band a spot on American Bandstand and an engagement at the Apollo Theater. Cook returned for a solo appearance at the Apollo, toured the country, and felt golden. He followed up "Peanuts" with the single "The Echoes Keep Calling Me," but it didn’t chart.

Thus began the post- "Peanuts" period. Cook fulfilled his five-year contract with OKeh and moved to smaller labels. He managed his daughters’ group the Sherrys. By all accounts, he taught Tammi Terrell — who would later become famous for her duets with Marvin Gaye — to sing. He got divorced, relocated to Massachusetts, and met his second wife, Joanne, at the Cantab. He played clubs with names like the Beach Ball, the Downtown, Railroad Inn, the Blue Mirror, the Italian Villa. He sang at blues festivals and doo-wop revivals. He landed a gig at the Cantab and stayed. And all along, he sang "Peanuts," he guesses, "more than a million times."

Friday, September 9, 2011

Little Joe Cook: The Back Story

Here's our second installment of the Little Joe Cook article written by Camille Dodero for the Boston Phoenix in 2005.

Part 2: ‘This I Know’ 

No birth record exists for Joseph Cook, the only child of Annie Bell, a blues vocalist who once toured with jazz singer Ethel Waters and Bessie “Empress of the Blues" Smith. Cook’s grandmother, a mother of 13 who found time to be a preacher and a midwife, helped deliver him at home on December 29, 1922, in South Philadelphia. 

Though he’s used his paternal cognomen throughout his life, Cook never knew his father. Performing and preaching were both in Cook’s blood, so at around 11, he and three cousins started singing spirituals together. "I was a natural, "Cook recalls." My mother was an entertainer and my grandmother was a preacher, so I was just gifted. " Cook also danced throughout his adolescence, winning Philly-area dance competitions and earning the nickname " Jitterbug Joe. "

After dropping out of high school to work full-time, 18-year-old Cook married his first wife, Lilly, who would later be the muse for "Lilly Lou," the love song on the B-side of "Peanuts." Over the next few years, Cook earned a living working for the Navy, helping to construct the USS Wisconsin, toiling as a jitney driver for Campbell’s Soup, and sorting coins at the US Mint for 85 cents an hour. With Lilly, he also fathered three children: two daughters (who would later be two-thirds of the Cook-managed ’60s girl group the Sherrys, along with Cook’s niece) and a son, who died at a year old.

Meanwhile, Cook sang. He’d grown up listening to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong. But his mother forbade him to sing secular music, even though she herself had spent many years crooning the blues. "She came off the road and got religious," Cook writes in the liner notes of Blast from the Past, a nearly complete collection of his late-’50s and early-’60s recordings. " That’s when she didn’t want me to do what she was doing as long as she was living. "

So instead of singing rock and roll, Cook taught it. "He loved gospel," recalls Joseph " JoJo " Wallace, a long-time friend and a tenor for the 60-year-old gospel quintet the Sensational Nightingales. " But that wasn’t all that he wanted. "

While performing with the spiritual group Evening Star Quartet, Cook managed a doo-wop group of seven male vocalists. "I taught them guys how to sing, how to walk on stage," Cook remembers. " I wrote all the songs and everything. "Some of them had to be fired — a few kept skipping daily rehearsals to shoot hoops — but there were always replacements waiting in the wings." Back then, I had a good ear, " Cook reasons. " Everybody used to come to me. "

"Word got around that Joe had this band," says fellow Philly native Reggie Grant, 62, the Thrillers’ saxophonist who’s known Cook for nearly 50 years. "I would be riding by this church and hear this group rehearsing down in the basement. I would sit at the window and watch them perform. But they weren’t singing spirituals in the basement of that church, "he says, pausing for dramatic effect." They were singing rock ’n’ roll."

"My wife’s sister used to make fun of us," Cook recalls. " She’d say, ‘You guys sound like frogs.’ We said, ‘People’ll pay us to sing like this.’ She said, ‘I wouldn’t pay no money to hear you guys.’ "

But eventually, people did: Cook convinced the owner of the local club Diamond Horseshoe that his "nice-looking" boys would attract girls to the venue if his group sang there weekly. "We’ll pack this place clean, "Cook remembers telling the owner. They did. And it was at the Horseshoe where Cook’s band got its name. "One girl said, ‘You guys thrill me,’ "says Cook." I said, ‘I like that name, I’m going to name you guys the Thrillers."

Soon after, Columbia Records heard the buzz about the Thrillers and sent a talent scout to a rehearsal. The way Cook tells it, Farris Hill, the Thrillers’ lead at the time, screwed up in front of the scout. "I would say, ‘Faz, do it like this’ when he’d mess up, "Cook explains. " And I’d sing it. So the Columbia guy says to me, ‘I like your voice. Why don’t you sing it?’ I said, ‘No, this is the group the Thrillers. I’m singing spirituals.’ He said, ‘You could do the record and let him learn off the record.’ Faz said, ‘Yeah Joe, I can’t sing it like you do.’ "Cook pauses." My mother didn’t want me singing no rock ’n’ roll. But she’d been passed away. "

So Cook sang. "I didn’t want to stop them from making money," he rationalizes. When Cook & the Thrillers were offered a deal with Columbia subsidiary OKeh Records, they didn’t have the money to get to New York. So Cook pawned either his first wife’s jewels or her sewing machine — the recollections vary — and paid for the boys to go to New York. "The rest, "he says, " is history. "

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Chicken Slacks were fortunate to be offered Little Joe Cook's Thursday night spot at The Cantab Lounge back in 2005. As our Six Year Anniversary draws near, we offer five installments of a fine article written by Camille Dodero for the Boston Phoenix in 2005.

The Little Joe Cook Story
by Camille Dodero

Part 1

Joe Cook gets mad when people call him a fad. Doo-wop devotee Phil Groia called him that in the 1991 liner notes of Little Joe Cook & the Thrillers Meet the Schoolboys (Sony Music Collectables). Cook, who likes to boast that his squeaky-trumpet shrill "made me famous all over the world, " is not a fad. Just look at the embossed script on his glinting, gold-leaf business card. Or the sign bearing his glossy headshot outside the Cantab Lounge, the Central Square watering hole where the 80-year-old warbles two nights a week. They both read: LEGENDARY LITTLE JOE COOK.

That’s right, Little Joe Cook is Legendary — with a capital "L." Back in the ’50s, he fronted a rock-and-roll vocal group called Little Joe & the Thrillers. In 1957, their signature single, the doo-bee-doo-wah ditty " Peanuts, " rode the Billboard charts for 15 weeks, peaking at 23. That same year, he bopped on stage at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater and hoofed a self-choreographed, toe-tapping shuffle called "The Slop" on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand; he also appeared at New York’s Paramount Theater for an Alan Freed showand flitted around the country billed with the likes of B.B. King, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Lionel Hampton. Simon & Garfunkel’s first paid gig was opening for Little Joe Cook & the Thrillers in New Haven, Connecticut.

Nearly half a century later, Cook recalls these triumphs repeatedly in conversation, as if his legendary status — albeit a self-appointed one, since the shimmering business card and photo caption are his own design — consists entirely of 45-year-old feats. But despite his insistence on reliving those faded nights of bright lights and grand finales, Cook’s post- "Peanuts" period hasn’t been all epilogue. Rather, those ephemeral days of national radio play are, in many ways, the prologue to Cook’s story.

‘Down at the Cantab’

The Cantab Lounge isn’t a place you’d take your 80-year-old grandmother — unless grandma likes the smell of booze, exudes the soul of Aretha Franklin, and doesn’t mind the occasional shady man asking her to dance. It’s inclusive, unrefined, and random. On weekend nights, the joint is rollicking with college students and post-grad professionals, birthday parties and liquid-courage displays. During the daytime, it’s a racially diverse dive of hard-boiled barflies, sunken-cheeked smokers, and blaring television screens. Tiffany-style Michelob Light lamps hang from the ceiling; a white clock behind the bar tells time, but its numbers are clustered in a shriveled heap around the six, as though passed out, appearing beneath the words WHO CARES? Nearby, a framed painting of a naked woman’s backside hangs, her peach-like bum mooning the customers.

This is the second home of Little Joe Cook, a/k/a the Nut Man, an old-school octogenarian who praises God, hot nuts, and hot women. A soul singer with arthritic knees, stubby bowlegs, and dyed hair, Cook has been performing here intermittently with the Thrillers, his four-piece backing band, for nearly 25 years. Every Friday and Saturday, he plods to the microphone at 10:20 p.m. Usually, he’s outfitted in a dapper jacket and turtleneck, and gilded with a golden peanut-shaped ring and matching necklace.

"When most people think of the Cantab, they think of Joe," says Cantab owner Richard Fitzgerald. " The two go together. "

Even in his absence, Cook’s influence is palpable. On one wall, there’s a cartoon-y mural of a toothy peanut surrounded by a silhouetted quartet of instrument-playing goobers. The staff’s green golf shirts read CANTAB LOUNGE/THAT’S WHERE IT’S AT, a line borrowed from Cook’s boogie tune " Down at the Cantab. "Even the regulars mention him when he’s not around: on a recent Thursday afternoon, as updates about the Rhode Island nightclub fire spill from the television, a pudgy, mustachioed guy mutters to no one in particular, "They better leave us alone here. Joe Cook of all people is going to have pyrotechnics? I don’t think so."

Cook isn’t a pyrotechnics kind of performer — some nights, he and the Thrillers can barely run the sound system — and the closest his live show gets to special effects is when an unidentified chunk falls from the ceiling and thumps long-time guitarist Candido Delgado on the head. And for the most part, Cook’s recital seems dictated by a script rather than a set list. Lately, he begins with "This Little Light of Mine," a hymn most Christian kids learn at vacation Bible school. He tells the crowd that God healed him from his 2001 stroke and asks everyone to give God a nice round of applause. Then he segues into "Hot Nuts," a song in which he hobbles around the dance floor, points to men seated at nearby tables, and says things like, " See that fella dressed in brown? He’s got the biggest nuts in town. "The audience laughs when he does this — pretty girls especially, who tend go " Woooooh! " when they hear Cook talking about nuts.

Women love Little Joe. They kiss him. Some press their lips against his fingertips; others nuzzle against him for snapshots. More than a decade ago, a group of female fans made up T-shirts and called themselves the "Beauty Shop Girls, " a reference to Cook’s sexy-siren serenade " Lady from the Beauty Shop. " During one recent late-night break, Cook ambled out of the Cantab’s bathroom and three blond girls standing by the jukebox cheered, waved, and high-fived him.

"I was told that I had to check out Little Joe Cook before he died," says 25-year-old Evan Monsky, a Philadelphia transplant who moved to Brighton six months ago and went to see Cook after hearing about him through a friend. " This kind of reminds me of a bar mitzvah."

Cook & the Thrillers do perform at weddings, graduation parties, and birthday bashes. And with the exception of fervent sax player Reggie Grant, the Thrillers do sound somewhat like a wedding band: traditional, comfortable, rote, and unmoved. The drummer, Shane O'Donohoe, a dead ringer for every high-school social-studies teacher you ever had, occasionally looks like he’s napping. And their covers are dance classics with family-function pasts: Leo Sayers’ "You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’," Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Going On."

But Cook’s on-stage charm wins audiences. "I love seeing him," says Cambridge city councilor Anthony Galluccio, a long-time friend of Cook who designated an intersection beside the Cantab" Little Joe Cook Square " in 1999, when he was mayor of Cambridge. "You know what songs he’ll be playing when you walk in, you know how he’s going to act, and you always know how you’re going to feel when you leave."