Leroy Cooper’s last gig

October 14, 2009

It was early evening on January, 5, 2009. The parking lot behind Harry’s Cigar & Brew, a cigar and coffee bar, was next to the dumpster. Folding chairs were set up in the area where the garbage truck would pull up to unload the trash. Harry’s was known as the blues hangout in the sleepy little town of Oviedo, Florida. Outside the back door a little plot of concrete served as the stage. In front of this area was a little area of grass which separated the band from the audience. Folding chairs were set up facing the wall.

Blues fans and cigar smokers watched as the band set up their equipment, some with glasses of port or cans of beer in hand. Others had cigars in one hand and drinks in the other or on the chair next to them. The winter sky was darkening, even though the temperatures hovered around 70 degrees. Ah, that’s why people came to Florida in the winter. While northerners were shoveling snow, Floridians were sitting out in a parking lot getting ready to hear some first class blues.

At 7:30, Josh Miller stepped up to the mic and welcomed the fans. A banner was on the dumpster: “Josh Miller Blues Revue.” That particular night, Josh spoke to the crowd before the music started. He said that he felt uncomfortable with the name of the band because their newest member, Leroy ‘Hog’ Cooper, was such a legendary musician that he should be given more credit than he was being afforded. Josh said, “Tonight we want to highlight some of  the music that Mr. Cooper played during his long career.” Leroy’s shy smile conveyed his humility. The crowd applauded.

On the wall behind the band, way up high, a light was hanging from the roof. It had stars cut out of the makeshift lampshade and colored bulbs inside it. The light was turned on just as the band began to play. Harry’s Starlight Lounge was officially open.

That night, there were many selections that Leroy had played with Ray Charles. Other songs included those he had played or recorded with Zuzu Bollin, Lowell Fulson and others. The show was a tribute to Leroy’s long career. He was 80 years old. During every single number, Leroy stood up and played a solo on his alto sax. He played all the reed instruments but was best known for his baritone saxophone. At 80 years old, the big horn had gotten too heavy and required too much lung power so he had switched to the alto. His solos were exceptional and each received a standing ovation.

The crowd grew to 50 or 60 people. Maybe more. All ages, sizes and shapes were represented. The one thing they all had in common was that they were there to hear the music. Nobody knew that this would be their last opportunity to hear Leroy Cooper blow his horn. Josh sang and played his guitar. Kenny Clark excelled, as always, on the Hammond B3 organ and Tommy DeQuattro kept the beat on the drums. The performance was beyond any that had taken place at Harry’s in the past.

Five days later, Leroy Cooper passed away suddenly. His schedule was full through the month of March, but he had given his last performance. And what a great performance it was.

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Music at Leroy’s Memorial Service

October 10, 2009

© Susan Cross, 2009

At Leroy Cooper’s funeral, held at Faith World in Orlando on January 22, 2009, there was music. The memorial service would not have been complete without it. His coffin was set at the front of the chapel against the stage. As always, there was a glimmer of a smile on his face. Initially, Miss Jacqueline Jones was going to sing accompanied by pianist Michael Kramer. Both had played with Leroy in Orlando many times. There was a last minute change.

Through Leroy’s conversations with me he had spoken of a close friend named Don Peake, a young white guitarist who had joined Ray Charles in the early years. They had struck up a friendship almost from their first meeting. Leroy talked to me about Don several times. After one of those conversations I Googled Don and found him through the magic of the Internet. I called and introduced myself and told him of my closeness with Leroy and how fondly Leroy remembered him. Don was shocked and pleased. They had not spoken in 30 years. I gave Don Leroy’s phone number and they rekindled their friendship.

During the following year I had several conversations with Don. We became long-distance acquaintances with Leroy being the common denominator. If Don and Leroy were friends, and Leroy and I were friends, then, by default, Don and I were friends. Does that make sense? It did to us.

When I called Don to tell him of Leroy’s passing he asked when the funeral would be.

“I wonder if I can get a flight?” he said. Without hesitation I offered him my guest room and again, without a moment to think he asked, “Could you pick me up at the airport?”

“Of course,” I said. He booked the flight and called back with the details.

Don expressed a desire to bring his guitar and play a tribute at the service. After all, he was flying from Los Angeles to Orlando and had known Leroy from their younger days so it seemed fitting to me. I discussed this with Clemmie, Leroy’s widow, and arrangements were made. It was a little awkward explaining to Jackie Jones that Don would be bringing his guitar but we all agreed that they would work it out.

Leroy was sent home with music by an old friend from far away and two newer friends from close by as they played together. The song was a Ray Charles classic, “Georgia.” Leroy would have been pleased to see that racial tension had been overcome in his lifetime and was evident at his service. Miss Jones is African-American; Don Peake and Michael Kramer are white. The mourners were also “salt and pepper,” equally. Leroy was loved by them all.

Smooth jazz on sax

October 8, 2009

© Susan Cross, 2009

Leroy Cooper was a quiet man. That is, he didn’t talk a lot. He said that was because he was a Virgo. When he spoke, he mostly told stories of his past; memories of his long, eventful life. Everyone that knew him referred to him as a storyteller. And, man oh man, he sure had stories to tell! His voice was soft, even when he was excited. David Ritz referred to him as Loving Leroy, a man that was all heart. It’s sad that it was his heart was what finally gave out. Perhaps he had just used it up during more than 80 years of life.

When it came to playing his horns, though, he was anything but quiet. He could play background rhythm to almost any band but when his solo time approached, he would stand up and start blowing out that smooth jazzy sound that differentiated him from others. He said once that playing solos on the baritone was difficult and that’s why he originally went from alto to bari, in order not to have to play solos. He was young then and just getting started. With practice and coaching from some of the best he learned to handle that huge horn and make it sing.

In his later years, he said he never practiced at home. Never took out the horns. He would just go over the music in his mind and when he thought he had it right he would do the fingering on his pillow. Once he was on stage, he already knew exactly what the riffs were and he never failed to amaze his audience.

Smooth. Yes, no matter what his friends called him — Lee, Leroy, Coop, Hog or Cooper — everyone referred to his music as smooth.

Flying with Ray Charles

October 8, 2009

Excerpt from Leroy ‘Hog’ Cooper on Sax

© Susan Cross, 2009

“While I was with Ray, the first plane was a Marin, the same as Frank Sinatra had, and the same that Otis Redding died in. Then he got a jet plane. He had three, plus he had a small individual plane. The Martin was for everybody. It was a 50 place, (not a 50 seater) then the jet he got was larger than that. In his small plane, a little Piper, it was just him and his pilot.

“We used to meet artists in the airports like James Brown who had his Lear Jet. He would come around and that only had about seven or eight places there, but he could get to his gigs faster.

“Jackie Gleason, Fats Waller and B.B. King never liked to fly. They took the train.

“I saw a nice sun shiny day and all buckled up when the pilot in Germany came in for those power landings. Getting to the gigs was horrifying. We had assigned seats and the guy across the aisle from me always kept some kind of bottle of something in his carry-on bag. During turbulence, when the plane would start to bounce I would look at him and I would just reach in and I didn’t care if it was scotch or gin. Then the road manager said, “No drinking on the plane.” Yeah, right. It helped me through a lot.

“We had a chartered plane in France; very exciting. They gave you wine on that plane as soon as you got on that bad boy. It was the roughest ride you could imagine. I was drinking that French wine. I stayed away from those little planes.

“I had to get a flight from Chicago to Springfield, Illinois one time. They sent us to a far point in the airport and I knew it was either a big plane or a small one. They let everybody wait until about 15 minutes before boarding. “Here comes your little plane.” We saw this little plane come up with these little donut wheels. Oh boy. That was the most exciting trip. That little thing climbed up and it was filled with almost all state politicians, all prim and proper with their attaché cases and their newspapers. There wasn’t that much space on the plane because the luggage was inside with us. When that little plane started to bounce around people began to look at each other.

“I said, ‘When we leave Springfield I’m getting the bus.’ It was just that one time I had to fly in a place with just 12-13 people and it was too exciting for me.

copyright Susan Cross August 2009

Leroy ‘Hog’ Cooper on Sax

September 30, 2009

© Susan Cross, 2009

The sun came up this morning and but the first cold front has moved into Central Florida and the cooler air felt good. It was a good day to write, work and edit. The editing is the most important thing at this point.

Transcribing hours of conversations and interviews into documents is a grueling process. If you think the work ends there, my friend, you are sadly mistaken. The project of writing a biography is similar to what happens in a forensics lab. Scientists find a burial site. Just under the surface of the dirt they discover piles of bones; lots of them. Carefully, they begin to recover these relics and return to the lab with each bone in tact.

At the lab comes the interesting part. It’s like solving a puzzle. Take this pile of bones and lay them out in the perfect order to recreate those of a human being or an animal, without knowing which. Of course, this theory assumes you are a scientist and have done this before.

Finding the skull is easy. You work your way down from there. Then you find another skull. Hmmm. How many bodies do these bones belong to?

Working with the transcription for a writer can feel the same as the forensics specialist. Starting at the beginning — wait a minute, which is the beginning? When the person was born? Do you start there? “I was born in South Dallas.” Boring.

“I joined the Ray Charles Band in 1957.” More interesting, but not really the beginning. Maybe it’s better to start in the middle and then move back to childhood when a connection is made.

Put another way, if you were writing the story of your life and hoping that someone would want to read past the first page, would you start out with when and where you were born? Do you think anyone would keep reading past the day your mother brought you home from the hospital?

Biographies don’t always work that way. All of the information, conversation, interview material should be compiled into an order that makes sense, holds the readers interest but follows some timeline. There are lots of stories that don’t fit into any particular category, chapter and have no information regarding the date of the anecdote. These are usually the precious, personal moments in time that give the reader a sense of the subject’s inner self. They give a glimpse into little things that person found interesting or amusing, unrelated to the implied theme that defines the totality of his life. A person he might have met once. A setting or scene that made an impression. A sentence spoken by someone, possibly a stranger or even a friend, that gives insight into a relationship or perceived emotion.

For those who think it’s a simple process of relating a person’s 80 years of life in an interesting manner, please be informed. Transcription may be grueling (or expensive — $100-125 per hour — if you pay someone else to do it) but editing (another very expensive services if done by a professional editor) the resulting documents into a biography is where the serious challenge comes in. Since I chose to do them myself, I’ve learned that lesson and have finally gotten into a frame of mind where the big picture is coming into sight.

The easier way of having a biography or memoir written without assembling the bones yourself is to hire a ghost writer. Unfortunately for the subject, ghost writers are paid large sums of money UP FRONT, before the project starts. This payment is intended  to compensate them for their work, time and lost income while working to bring the subject to life. They are paid extra for their expenses and any time spent doing research to elaborate on the details, make necessary contacts to find professional photographers and get permission to use old pictures to enhance the written word. In many, if not all cases, that money is not an advance to be returned as profits are realized. After all, the ghost writer gets no credit for their work, his or her name is not mentioned and the resulting book is presented as if the subject had written and edited the material himself.

In this case, I am not a ghost writer. During the last two years I have worn many hats, often changing them several times in one day. The process is almost complete and I look forward to taking all of those hats. I will need a large hat to hang them up and display them prominently in a place where I will be reminded daily that I have kept my promise.

Leroy Cooper, you will not be forgotten.

© Susan Cross, 2009

My friend Lowell Fulson

August 28, 2009

From Leroy ‘Hog’ Cooper on Sax as told to Susan Cross. © Susan Cross, 2009

Lowell Fulson

 In 1954, I played with Lowell Fulson at Chess Records. Leonard Chess was at the date and was telling me what to play on the baritone. “Play some low notes, play some low notes.” All this was going on when we was playing on Reconsider Baby.

In 1956, we recorded “I Believe I’ll Give it Up,” “Please Don’t Go,” and “Be on your Merry Way.”

Lowell  lived about 30 miles from me in Ft. Worth. He would come to Dallas to do a gig and would come by my house and rest up. You know, him and his lady. I guess I knew him pretty well. Back then, the guitarist was so superior to everybody else, just like organ players. If you could play the organ you were better than the rest of the guys. You were a big man.

© Susan Cross, 2009

Ray Charles backup singers – Can you spell the name of the group?

August 26, 2009

How many ways can you spell the group of women who sang with Ray Charles? Seems to me the most logical way would be Raylets. Wrong! I have seen Raylettes. Wrong. Raelettes? Wrong! Ralets? Wrong! Raelets? Wrong, again! I could go on and on.

Mable John, the lead singer of the ladies in the pretty dresses, singing “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and many of his other songs has informed me that the proper spelling of Ray’s backup singers is: Raeletts!

So, if you guessed Raeletts, you win. I can’t tell you how many times I was a loser until I spoke to the expert. All that matters is that I finally got it right.

© Susan Cross, 2009

Frankie Lee Sims and Sun Ra

August 25, 2009

Leroy talked about the jazz side and blues side. He describes some of his first experiences with real ‘outlaw’ jazz here.

Excerpt from Leroy ‘Hog’ Cooper, by  Susan Cross; © Susan Cross, 2009

“My first automobile I got when I was playing with Frankie Lee Sims. And I didn’t know that he was a big man. So I got down on him. Then I heard these guitar players talking about Frankie Lee Sims. I said he was just another cat to me. I never did know what the story was and when to stop. He’s say, “Blow.” And I’d go voom, voom, voom. And I said to myself, when do you stop? And finally when you got tired of blowing, he’d get back to singing. No charts, no nothing. Just blow.

*****

“That’s the way it was with Sun Ra, too. I used to rehearse with Sun Ra in Chicago. And that’s the way he’d come to me.

He’d say, “Play.” The cats in the band would look at you and say, “Play. Just play your instrument.”

That’s not easy to do. He would call me changes. Sun Ra might get a bell. Creativity. People was sitting there so high they don’t even know what day it is. I didn’t last with that too long. I got friends that loved them. They stayed with Sun Ra for years. I’d see them in New York and they’d say come down to the so-and-so and I’d say, I’ll be there. But I didn’t want to go to that.”

© Susan Cross, 2009

Fork in the road – two different paths

August 25, 2009

A woman found Leroy Cooper’s MySpace page, which I maintain, and contacted me about her grandfather. Robert Murphy was a friend of Cooper’s when they played in Fred Cooper’s Big Band made up of all adult black men. They were two of the teenagers asked to sit in for musicians that had been called to serve in World War 2.

Both had played music from a young age. They were excited about playing Tommy Dorsey music with adult musicians in theaters to an all-white audience. Both dreamed of careers in music. Both got their wish, but in two separate arenas.

Cooper and Murphy attended college on music scholarships. Back in the late 1940s, black colleges offered limited options. As Cooper put it: “You could become a preacher or a teacher.” Cooper decided in his senior year that he didn’t want to be either so he left to play in a band. Murphy stayed in school.

When Ray Charles came to Dallas, David ‘Fathead’ Newman joined his band and subsequently brought Cooper along. Murphy had the opportunity to join and was inclined to do so. However, his father urged him to stay in school and pursue his Master’s Degree. He obviously didn’t see a possibility for a successful career playing in bands.

Cooper paid his dues, playing with Ray Charles and other bands. He traveled the world and saw the sights. He watched his friends marry and divorce as life on the road was not marriage-friendly. Musicians loved playing music but there were drugs and alcohol and women that destroyed many. In 1977 he left Ray Charles, where he had become the bandleader, to marry (for the third time) and settle down. Wise choice. He remained married to the love of his life for 33 years. “She saved my life,” he said. He continued his musical career as a member of the Dixie Deltas, the strolling trio at Disney World in Orlando where he retired after 20 years.

Murphy stayed home. He got his degrees and became a teacher. He married and had children. He was promoted to principal and eventually administrator. His entire career was built around teaching music and his home life was stable. He has seven grandchildren and is 82 years old.

The memories of standing on stage next to Cooper have floated to the top of Murphy’s mind. He is having his granddaughter look up old friends, only to find that they have passed on. Murphy is a bright, happy man who sounds satisfied with the life he has led but wonders what it would have been like if…

Cooper died with the knowledge of three children that he fathered, none of which he was allowed to meet. Although he raised two step-children and a step-grandson, there was always that little hole in his heart that filled with nostalgia when he told me about his two sons and a daughter.

These men grew up together in Dallas. Their fathers played music together. I’m sure there were a lot of contributing factors to the decisions each one made, but their stories describe the opposite paths that each traveled, both with happiness but also with wonder. Neither had regrets. Cooper’s last words to me were: “I have enjoyed every part of my life.” That is a reflective statement from an 80 year old who survived the challenges and dangers of pursuing uncertainty. Murphy’s spoke of his family and stability with equal satisfaction.

Nobody can answer the question, “What if?” and therefore, nobody should ask it.

© Susan Cross, 2009

RIP Leroy Cooper – Aug 31, 1928 – Jan 15, 2009

July 30, 2009

Leroy Cooper was best known for his years as Ray Charles’ baritone saxman and bandleader. He was with Ray from 1957 through 1977 with a few breaks during that time. But like so many other dedicated musicians, he lived for the love of music. At 80 years old, he was still performing

On January 10, 2009 Leroy Cooper played a gig with the Josh Miller Blues Revue. He was a large man, big enough to handle the baritone, but that night he was blowing the alto sax. Josh Miller dedicated the evening to Leroy Cooper. He rearranged the sets to include many songs that Leroy had recorded over his lengthy musical career. That night, he played like a young man, blowing out solos in every song. Nobody knew that it would be his last gig but those who were there will never forget it.

Five days later he passed over and joined the Angels that he often mentioned when telling stories his stories. Those Angels were the same ones that kept him from going into the trenches in Korea the day before he was to be deployed. Instead, he was called up to the Army band. Another time he mentioned the Angels was when he saw the picture of the woman he would marry and with whom he would spend the last 33 years of his life, Clemmie.

Just over five years ago Ray Charles went home and now Leroy ‘Hog’ Cooper. David ‘Fathead’ Newman joined him five days later and Hank Crawford ten days after that. Someday I hope to see Leroy and his fellow saxmen and friends and hear their music — if they let me in!

© Susan Cross, 2009