Leroy Cooper’s last gig

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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