Joe Cook: A Doo-Wop Legend Lives On
By Richie Sarno
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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.