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Little Joe Cook, at 91; his falsetto on ‘Peanuts’ a huge hit

Standing just under 5-foot-4, Little Joe Cook was short in stature, but he had no shortage of confidence. Performing up to five nights a week at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge during a 27-year run that stretched into his mid-80s, he often asked his audience: “Who is the Man?” Then he shouted in no uncertain terms, “I’m the Man!”

A galvanizing presence in Cambridge’s Central Square, Mr. Cook drew all ages, all races, and all manner of MIT and Harvard students into the gritty Cantab, a club that was a throwback in time, just as he was.

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In 1957, he became a classic one-hit wonder in the music business when he wrote and sang the Top-40 hit “Peanuts,” which eventually sold 1 million copies. Mr. Cook, who rode that hit the rest of his career, singing in his high falsetto four sets a night as the Cantab crowds roared their support, died of cancer Tuesday in Oak Knoll Healthcare Center in Framingham. He was 91 and had lived in Framingham.

His uncanny sense of showmanship was matched only by his knack for marketing. He not only sang “Peanuts” tirelessly, he promoted it by wearing a peanut ring and necklace. For years he pulled up in front of the Cantab and parked his yellow Cadillac Seville with a hood ornament shaped like a peanut. His license plate? “NUT MAN.”

“I don’t get tired of it because that’s what people pay to see,” Mr. Cook told the Globe in 1998, when he was 75. “They want to see if I can still sing the falsetto in the song. And I love showing them that I still can.”

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Long before becoming an icon in Cambridge, Mr. Cook was influential in pioneering high-falsetto vocals in South Philadelphia, where he grew up. An old-school entertainer, he first toured with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the Clovers, and B.B. King in the 1950s.

Some music historians say he was a strong influence on hit makers such as the Four Seasons, who covered “Peanuts” as a tribute to him, and Lou Christie.

“Little Joe is in a pantheon of high-falsetto gods that we revere,” Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, told the Globe in 2012, when Mr. Cook was feted with a 90th birthday party at the Ryles in Cambridge. “His falsetto also seemed a little purer and a little higher than most of the rest.”

Mr. Cook wrote the hit “Peanuts” in five minutes after hearing a neighbor refer to her young daughter as Peanut. The little girl had a high voice and Mr. Cook incorporated her expression, “uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh,” into the song. It became a staple of crowd singsongs at the Cantab and was also used in a Skippy peanut butter commercial.

Oddly enough, the song didn’t impress his second wife, Joanne, who met him at the Cantab after she and her sister took their mother out to dinner one night.

“I didn’t care for the song, but I was attracted to him as a person,” she said this week after he died. “I miss him a lot. He was very shy and nice with me . . . and very romantic.”

They lived in Framingham for many years and she inspired his song “Lady from the Beauty Shop,” with its refrain that she makes him go “bippity-bop.”

They raised a son, Joseph Cook Jr., who is 7 inches taller than his father and is sometimes called “Big Little Joe.” Their son did not become a performer, but he recalled spending many happy days with his father watching movies and pro wrestling on TV.

“After high school, I stopped watching the wrestling, but my dad kept right on watching,” he said with a laugh.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Cook leaves five children from a previous relationships, Dineh Bowie and Delphine Crump of Philadelphia, Monica Cawley of Dorchester, Wesley Thompson of Culpeper, Va., and Stephanie Polemir.

Mr. Cook’s mother, Annie Bell, was a blues singer, and he never knew his father, according to Joe Jr.

Starting out singing gospel music, Mr. Cook was part of a gospel group called the Evening Stars, an influence that lingered. He performed some gospel songs at the Cantab and kept a Bible on the dashboard of his Cadillac.

After touring far and wide, from the Apollo Theater in New York City to stages in London, Mr. Cook took a liking to Boston and settled in Framingham. His confidence was immediately apparent in the late 1970s when he approached the Cantab’s owner, Richard Fitzgerald.

“He told me he could put the place on the map if I gave him a chance,” Fitzgerald recalled. “He started playing one night a week and he brought people in, so I gave him more nights.”

Eventually, Little Joe Cook and his band, the Thrillers, built up to full gigs Thursday to Saturday nights, and Mr. Cook ran the jam sessions there on Wednesdays and Sundays.

“He ran great jams for years,” said drummer Sir Cecil, noting that many local luminaries such as Silas Hubbard Jr., “Earring” George Mayweather, Sax Gordon, Big Jack Ward, and Pat Benti played at the gatherings.

Mr. Cook could be tough on musicians, though, according to Diane Blue, who succeeded him at the Cantab.

“He would encourage people to get up there, but he was old school,” she said. “If you made a mistake or didn’t get the groove right, he would get you off the stage.”

Such was his fame at the Cantab that the city of Cambridge named a square for him, but he never gave up trying to expand his fame.

“You know, I get asked all the time if I feel like I should have been a bigger star,” he told the Globe in 2012. “I tell ’em yes. But on the other hand, I’m the Legendary Little Joe Cook. Everything works out the way it’s supposed to, so I’ve been exactly who I needed to be.”

Richie Sarno, a local filmmaker who made a documentary about Mr. Cook, said his close friend “was never bitter about it. He was happy with who he was.”

Mr. Cook also had a gift for uniting and diversifying the crowds that came to see him sing. “When we first went into the Cantab, it was all-white audiences, and then eventually blacks would come in,” said his longtime guitarist, Candido “Candy” Delgado. “They’d each go to one side, but then they would all mingle. Joe loved all people.”

Mr. Cook kept the Cantab vibe going by writing the song “Down at the Cantab” with its line, “that’s where it’s at . . . yeah, yeah, yeah!”

When he was on stage, he lightened the mood by referring to the men in the crowd as “hamburgers” and the women as “cheeseburgers.”

A memorial gathering will be held for Mr. Cook at 4 p.m. Tuesday in Burke & Blackington Funeral Home in Newton.

Mr. Cook, whose life and career will be celebrated with a memorial jam session at the Cantab at 9 p.m. Sunday, was once asked for the secret of his longevity.

“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I get all my energy from the fans,” he told the Globe in 1998. “They’re the best medicine for me.”

Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.

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