Little Joe Cook: A Doo-Wop Legend Lives On
By Richie Sarno
Atomic Magazine, 2002
The year was 1957. Major John Glenn set an air speed record, while the Russians launched the Sputnik 1 satellite. Jackie Robinson retired from baseball, West Side Story opened on Broadway, and Jimmy Hoffa controlled the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Elvis Presley's first number one hit, "Heartbreak Hotel" was released and Berry Gordy founded Motown Records. Across America, there were 47,200 television sets in homes, many of which were tuned into Dick Clark's American Bandstand.
That was also the year that Little Joe Cook appeared on Bandstand with his group The Thrillers. Their song, "Let's Do The Slop," was a regional hit about a widely popular dance that Joe created. Dick Clark brought him back a second time to sing another hit, "Peanuts." Released on the Okeh label (a subsidiary of Columbia Records), "Peanuts" would remain on the Billboard Top 100 chart for 15 weeks, peaking at number 22.
Cook turns 80 at the end of this month, but he hasn't slowed much from the early days of his career, and continues to make music. Born in South Philly on December 29, 1922, Joe Cook was the only child of Annie Bell, a blues singer who sang on the carnival circuit with the likes of Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. His grandma, a Baptist preacher, was left with the chore of bringing up Joe while Annie toured the country. His fine voice and musical interest started at a young age, and by 12, he formed his first group along with his three cousins called The Evening Star Quartet. The foursome were signed by Apex Records and in '51 they recorded "Say A Prayer for the Boys In Korea." They were big in Philly and soon landed a half-hour Sunday spot on a local radio show called "WHAT." The quartet toured throughout the south with The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Blind Boys and The Soul Stirrers.
Years later, The Soul Stirrers would ask Little Joe to replace Sam Cooke who left to pursue a solo career. But since he was in big demand at the time and had a hit song, Joe declined the offer. He focused his attention instead on managing a rock group, who would later become his band, The Thrillers.
Joe Cook's "Peanuts"
Cook often sang in Alan Freed's early rock-and-roll shows, and appeared at the Apollo Theater in a line-up that featured The Drifters, Big Maybelle and The G-Clefs. He possesses a five octave vocal range, but it was his piercing falsetto on songs like "Peanuts" and "Run Little Girl" that would become his trademark, and pave the way for singers like Frankie Valli and Lou Christie.
Little Joe recalls the night a young songwriter paid him a visit offering him a song. "After listening, I suggested he sing it," Joe said. The songwriter replied, "Mr. Cook, I am a songwriter, not a singer." That songwriter turned out to be Bobby Darrin, and the song was "Splish Splash." He recorded the song himself and landed a number one hit. "Boy did I regret that suggestion," jokes Little Joe.
In a similar twist of fate, Cook's chance to record "The Twist" was nixed by Mitch Miller, who was the head of the A&M division of Columbia and "a man known to despise rock music," Cook says. "The Twist" would go on to be a hit for both Hank Ballard and Chubby Checker. With no new hits and interest waning, the man who once had Simon & Garfunkel open for him found himself pondering his future.
Still performing, but relegated to smaller billings, he toured the country with B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland. During the early Sixties, he managed a girl group that featured his two daughters. They called themselves The Sherry's and would go on to have a hit song in 1962 called, "Pop Pop Pie." After one of the Sherry's departed, Tammy Montgomery, who referred to Cook as Uncle Joe, would change her name to Tammi Terrell and find fame as Marvin Gaye's singing partner. The popularity of "Peanuts" continued over the years. The Four Seasons recorded a version of the song, and it was used in a Skippy Peanut Butter commercial. Eventually, Little Joe decided to rest comfortably on his laurels. After a move to Boston in the late Sixties, he landed a regular gig at the CanTab Lounge in Cambridge, MA, and has been performing there for more than 25 years. The scene on the CanTab dance floor is reminiscent of American Bandstand 45 years ago, and the mostly college age crowd love the "Peanut Man." Little Joe also recently performed with Harvey Robbins' Royalty of Doo-Wop and Rock 'n' Roll show at Symphony Hall in Boston, and in a music poll conducted by the Boston Phoenix newspaper, Cook was voted the 2002 Best Local R&B performer. As he celebrates his 80th birthday, Little Joe Cook is looking forward to his seventh decade of entertainment.
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