Little Joe Cook recalls high notes of doo-wop fame
FRAMINGHAM — The first thing you see when you turn into Little Joe Cook’s driveway is his white Cadillac Seville with the vanity plates, “Nut Man.”
They refer to the 89-year-old singer’s one and only hit single, with his group Little Joe and the Thrillers, 1957’s “Peanuts,” which stayed on the Billboard charts for 15 weeks, making Cook’s high falsetto instantly recognizable. That song has remained the foundation of his career for decades, a few of them spent performing in Cambridge at the slightly faded Cantab Lounge.
“People the world over know who I am, and, yeah, it’s for that song,” said the doo-wop singer, who was born Joseph Cook. “And I'm just fine with that.”
On Saturday, fans, friends, and fellow performers, including old members of his band Little Joe’s Thrillers, will pay tribute to Cook at an early 90th birthday celebration at Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge.
Long retired and a bit frail, Cook is not expected to put on a full-fledged performance. It is understandably tough for him to hit the high notes these days. But he is likely to lead a chorus or two of “Peanuts” and his lesser known single, “Let’s Do the Slop,” recalling a once-
influential pop music era, now the stuff of history.
“Little Joe is in a pantheon of high-falsetto gods that we revere,” said Terry Stewart, president and chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. “His falsetto always seemed a little purer and a little higher than most of the rest.”
Sitting in the basement studio of his modest ranch home, Cook is stooped, wearing glasses and a hearing aid. He is plenty sharp though, wearing a sharkskin suit and cracking jokes about having to use a cane with “Mr. Peanut” engraved on the side.
On one wall is an old poster promoting a 1958 performance of Little Joe Cook and The Thrillers, along with their old band, the Troopers, at a Harlem nightclub. There are framed letters from Senator Edward M. Kennedy and television host Dick Clark.
Cook pauses, shuffling both feet inward, then outward and begins to sing the lyrics to “Let’s Do the Slop,” the song and dance combo that got him on “Bandstand,” the Bob Horn-hosted TV predecessor to Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Nearby hangs his gold record for “Peanuts.”
“That’s where it all started,” Cook said, chuckling, “at least after I turned to rock ’n’ roll.”
Born in South Philadelphia Dec. 29, 1922, Cook started singing in church with his mother, Annie Bell, a well-known regional blues singer, and his grandmother, a Pentecostal church leader, and eventually fronted a gospel quartet, The Evening Stars.
“I loved singing in the church,” he said. “Had a one-hour radio show once where me and the Stars sang the best religious music. But rock ’n’ roll was where it was. And I figured if I was going to go big, I had to get on board.”
The way Cook tells it, “Peanuts” was born one day when he was sitting in the window of his apartment and a teenage neighbor called out to her toddler sister not to run into traffic.
“ ‘Peanut! Peanut, you come here,’ ” she shouted. “And the little girl? Well, she only knew one word and said it over and over: ‘Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh.’ And she did it in this beautiful high voice. I thought to myself that was an interesting sound, so I sat down and wrote the song in five minutes.”
Cook knows people sometimes regard his career piteously, lamenting that “Peanuts” was his only big hit. But he did write and sing other tunes, including “Slop,” and years later, “Hold up, Stickem Up,” and “Lady from the Beauty Shop,” which was inspired by Joanne, his wife.
“People don’t get it,” Cook said. “Sure, I would have liked more hits. But sometimes the thing you give isn’t about the number of hits, but your influence. I have been influential, a lot more than a lot of other singers.”
Indeed, local filmmaker Richie Sarno, who made a documentary about Cook before the singer ended his 27-year run at the Cantab Lounge in 2007, says that Cook started the falsetto sound that inspired Frankie Valli (who, with the Four Seasons, covered “Peanuts” in 1962), Del Shannon, and the Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks, among others.
“It even goes beyond those years,” Sarno said. “I tell you what, he was doing it much longer, well before any of the others, including Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Joe started it. But he’s pretty humble about it still.”
Long after his heyday, after Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons had covered his song and made it more famous, after doo-wop had fallen behind the evolution of rock, Cook found a home at the Cantab, a neighborhood joint where he led jam sessions several nights a week from 1980 to 2007, says Bonnie Okun, author of “The Legendary Little Joe Cook.”
Except, that is, for brief interludes of illness and when Cook had a falling out with club owner Richard Fitzgerald. Neither man will say what the spat was about. But whatever it was, they made up long before two strokes and arthritis finally forced Cook to retire in 2007.
“What you have to understand about Joe is that when people call him the Legendary Little Joe Cook, it’s not just a title to flatter him,” Fitzgerald said.
“Joe pioneered a lot of things -- not just his sound, but different dances. You name it. If things had gone just a little differently one direction or the other, it’d be Joe known for ‘The Twist’ as a dance and not Chubby Checker.”
So why would Cook, a Philadelphia native, remain in Massachusetts all these years?
“A woman, what else?” he answered, with a laugh. “I met my second wife, still my wife, Joanne, at the Cantab. Really I met her in a beauty shop and then saw her in the Cantab. But that’s another story.”
Diane Blue, a blues singer and jam-session leader who took over for Cook at the Cantab, says she owes some of her longevity on the local scene to him. “When he decided to step back and give himself a break, he pushed hard for me to be his replacement,” said Blue, who will headline the Ryles event Saturday. “It could have been any of the great acts that performed regularly at the Cantab, but Joe pushed for me. And I’ll never forget it, because he was a hard act to follow.
“He covered everybody at the Cantab, Marvin Gaye, the Big Bopper. He did it all. And he was funny. He always called everyone hamburgers and cheeseburgers. That’s how he greeted the crowd: Hamburgers were men; cheeseburgers were women.”
“He covered everybody at the Cantab, Marvin Gaye, the Big Bopper. He did it all. And he was funny. He always called everyone hamburgers and cheeseburgers. That’s how he greeted the crowd: Hamburgers were men; cheeseburgers were women.”Cook says it is all just a memory to him now, one he will revisit fondly at Ryles on Saturday. “You know, I get asked all the time if I feel like I should have been a bigger star,” he said. “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.”