Fork in the road – two different paths

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


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