“A moth to a flame! When will it stop?” I came across this in a social media post by Mr Albert Cooper and believe it to be his very own definition of old age – the constant struggle between body & soul - his overwhelming passion for singing Jazz & Blues and his anxiety of not living up to the audience’s expectations. He describes himself as “an old man in his Mid-80s still trying to perform Jazz and Blues Vocals and play the guitar.” When I first read that sentence (actually the first I read of him) I immediately thought… the things he must have seen & heard… oh, the stories this man surely has to tell! I knew right then I would interview him one day.
And here we are… Except… what you are about to read is not an interview. It is a journey through decades of experience & contribution to the world of music, unnoticed by many but too important not to share.
From planes to jars, Black Anna to The Jacquard Club in Norwich, from Paul Simon to Buddy Guy, from Then to Now… Follow me on an amazing journey through the life of Mr Albert Cooper.
Crow Xp: Welcome, Albert. It is truly a pleasure to have you at Global Music Club.
Albert Cooper: Hi, Crow. Same here.
Crow Xp: You have been interviewed many times, from local newspapers to BBC. I felt like doing something slightly different today… Just chat & see where it takes us. Let’s start with a word I believe speaks to you quite deeply: Nostalgia.
Albert: Nostalgia? You want me to talk about my old days?
Crow Xp: Whatever you feel like. What does the word bring to you?
Albert: Well, nostalgia… sums up for me when I was a young person, a boy or a young man… Obviously when you’re old, nostalgia is the past, isn’t it?
So, my nostalgia is my family – I had a very loving Mum & Dad – two brothers and a sister. One brother is still alive. And we’re a Roman Catholic family, although they’ve all left the faith… but I haven’t. I still try and hang in there as much as I can.
When I was a young boy I had a bit of a treble voice… Funny enough, I always had a nice voice and my Dad and my Mum always wanted to show off… They’d say: “Sing for your Grandmother! Sing for your uncle or your aunts!” And I was so shy (and we’ve talked about me putting myself down, which is true) I had to go under the table to sing. I didn’t want anyone to see me singing. Then they’d all clap and I’d come out from under the table.
What happened was… in 1942 - so I was about 7 years old - Dad introduced me to the Choir Master at St John’s Cathedral here in Norwich. I became a Head Chorister there and I had my voice trained. I failed my 11th class. I was brought up during the war. I was 6 when the war started and 12 when the war finished. Norwich was bombed quite extensively. I remember all that sort of stuff, you know… So Father Anthony Roberts trained my voice and I owe him everything. Because I’ve been a singer ever since. Since 1942… which is quite a while!
Then, after that, my voice broke at about 15. My treble voice. You hang on to your voice by training, but your voice does eventually break. You get a man’s voice. Father Roberts said you need three years break before your male voice, adult voice, comes along. By that time around 1948 I went to work in a tailor shop and then in 1953 I went into the Royal Air Force where I became an airplane mechanic. I was in the Air Force for three years. I signed on for an extra year. The reason I signed on was because I love airplanes. I’ve always loved them. I used to make those model airplanes.
But that was the time of the Korean War and there was the Royal Norfolk Regiment… It was a big regiment here in Norwich. I was told I was being transferred there. I was actually terrified. I couldn’t kill anyone. A lot of my friends there, but I signed off. And that was the end of the air force for me. Anyhow that was awful really, because I didn’t want any time away from my family although it made a man of me and I had a great time at the air force. So I left the air force in 1954.
Then I took up my singing again. I joined the Norwich Choir… Handel´s Messiah and all the stuff… Carmina Burana… That type of music. But I’d always had this interest in jazz, because I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg. You used to get a lot of Jazz on it.
And then I met this woman called Black Anna. Well, she was called Black Anna. Her name was Antonetto Carrara - an Italian immigrant who always wore black. She was a big fat momma and she belted out Jazz & Blues songs.
So I went in there one day. We doubled up together and eventually ended up playing together for about 10 years. After that 10-year period I opened The Jacquard Club and I think you know more about that period now… that’s the nostalgic bit…
Crow Xp: So many amazing stories… I believe you left out a bit on the Hippodrome…
Albert: The Hippodrome? Oh. When I was a Choir boy at John the Baptist Cathedral… it used to be a Parish Church – it was the largest Parish Church in the world actually (huge place)… The Lady at the Hippodrome’s box office was another Roman Catholic and she suggested to Father Roberts, the Choir Master, that it would be lovely if I could do two weeks over Christmas singing Carols. Which I did.
Now the Hippodrome wasn’t a posh… it was a variety theatre… so you would use to get variety turns… It wasn’t plays or anything, it was just specialty acts, conjurers, striptease, fan dancers… all sorts of people. And I did two weeks in these shows doing Carols. I remember that very well… That was my first public performance. I was 12.
Crow Xp: As you said, later your voice broke, you went to work at a tailor shop and then your love of planes…
Albert: Oh, I love aircrafts! The first aircraft I worked on was the B-29 which was called a Washington in the RAF. That was the bomber that dropped – I don’t want to talk about Hiroshima… but you know that the one that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima… that was a B-29. That was my plane - or my ‘kite’ as we’d call it in the air force. Then I got demobbed. Came out.
I got married in 1960. We had five children. We lost a son at three years old. Almost 59 years now. Although I’m separated from my wife 18 years now.
Crow Xp: One of your sons - I think it’s Chris – he has a quartet, right?
Albert: Chris is brilliant. He went to the Trinity College of Music in London. A 4-year degree course. He got an Honor’s Degree in Piano Jazz Studies. He’s amazing.
There’s a very upper class school called Gresham’s in North Norfolk and he teaches there. He’s got the Gresham Girls and he produces songs with them. In fact, they have just released a Christmas song he wrote. Money from sales will go to a charitable cause. I think he’s a genius. He’s an absolutely incredible musician. I’m so proud of him.
My eldest son went to Drama School in London. He got a Drama degree but now he works at The Big Bus company and I've got a daughter who’s a teacher… English, at a local Catholic School here. And my other daughter is just a housewife. That’s my family.
Crow Xp: Let’s move on to one of those things I couldn’t resist… There was this song… “Let your linen hang low”…
Albert: Ha! ‘Let your linen hang low' means you’re pregnant… you know this is the idea. The Negros or the black… You know, I’m so touchy… I know a lot of blacks, negros… I don’t know what they’re called nowadays. They’re now called ‘people of colour’ in England. Anyhow…
That song used to be a duet. Let me sing you a bit of that:
Black Anna would go:
I'll let my linen hang low
I'll let my linen hang low
If you got a dollar and a half or more
I'll let my linen hang low, I mean
I'll let my linen hang low
And then I’d come in and sing:
I got a dollar and a half or more
I got a dollar and a half or so
So close that window and lock that door
And let your linen hang low, I mean
And let your linen hang low
Crow Xp: That was amazing. I will hold on to this footage haha
Albert: Anna died quite a while ago now… 50 years ago. But… at the Pub she had – The Jolly Butchers – you’d get all sorts… ladies, prostitutes, homosexuals… everybody was there, you know. It was one of those old places, very hippy really. I loved that place. We did a lot of duets like that. And Jazz…Like All of me.
Crow Xp: Ah yes, Jazz…
Albert: I’ve got a Jazz Trio which I call Albert Cooper’s Jazz Live. We do gigs occasionally. Not so much nowadays. We all get tired.
I’ve been to Chicago a couple of times. The Club we owned had a lot of black singers I booked and I know a lot of guys there. I met Buddy Guy and his brother Phil Guy (unfortunately he’s passed away). When I went there he said “Oh, you gotta come meet my brother” and so we went to Buddy Guy’s Legends Club in Chicago. Buddy Guy was at the bar with all these people around and we couldn’t get near. Phil said “Come & meet my brother”. So we went over and he introduced me to him… “This is Albert from Norwich. I played for him at his Club“ and stuff like that.
I had the ultimate compliment from Phil Guy… He said “You should listen to Albert sing The Thrill is Gone… Absolutely amazing”. I nearly died… I mean Buddy Guy is an idol of mine. That was fantastic. His brother was pretty good too.
Buddy Guy and The Thrill is Gone…I’m just a white guy trying to sing the Blues. That was the real thing, you know. But that’s in my view.
Crow Xp: You don’t sing the Blues. You feel the Blues. If you feel them, you sing them.
Albert: Well, yeah… I feel the Blues actually all the time, darling. But I got friends who keep me company… some good company and a couple of songs. That reminds me of Vic… You did interview him some time back, didn’t you?
Crow Xp: Yeah, Vic James. I did. Brilliant guy.
Albert: I’m sure I met Vic in Ibiza.
Crow Xp: Actually… I did my homework… You met him before that.
Albert: I’m pretty sure it was in Ibiza…
Crow Xp: He told me he used to go to The Jacquard Club...
Albert: Did he really? I didn’t know that. Glenn Marple… he’s in Ibiza and he was a chum of his. I played there last September. Went there for a week. Was with my friend Miquel also. He has a Blues Band called The Blues Mafia. And there’s a pretty nice place called San José where they all congregate.
What happened was… when I first had a holiday with my family – I had an advertising agency and we were making stacks of money so we had a holiday on the company. And I went to San José. (It’s called Sant Josep now.) And I stayed in a Villa with a swimming pool… very nice! So we went out in the evening and found a Sangria Bar… very nice Sangrias by the way… real strong ones, you know! And they were playing a couple of Blues records. And I asked them if they liked the Blues. I always take my guitar with me. And they said ”Oh yea, we love the Blues”.
Anyway, I grabbed my guitar… and this is now the place where I mentioned where all used to hang out… where Vic used to hang out. I went back the next year and brought some records. And we’ve been friends ever since. This was 1972.
Crow Xp: We cannot talk about your performances and not mention the famous Jam Jar…
Albert: Well, that’s right. These evenings with The Bobs. They do them for charity, to raise money for a hospice. So I said “I’m sorry, I can’t give you much but I can give you a copy of my poems (a bit I wrote and they’ve been published) and a jam jar.” They said that’d be great.
Now the Jam Jar has a quite simple answer… When you play at a pub anywhere or any venue & you’re a starving musician and don’t make much money… I was never really interested in making much money, but I also didn’t wanna lose money… So, I started thinking… I like my drinks, but if I go to the bar it’s gonna cost me a fortune. So I used to get a flask of whiskey in my pocket… But then again… you can’t take a flask of whiskey in and then ask ‘Could I have a glass, please?’ They’re gonna say No, aren’t they?
I still bring my booze. Nobody blinks an eye and I still use the jam jar because it became so traditional for me to drink out of a jam jar. People would say “Bloody hell, he’s drinking out of a jam jar!” Now there’s lot of restaurants who serve their booze in jam jars. But the fact is it has become institutional. So what I did at my 80th birthday (which was 5 years ago and God knows where 5 years have gone!) I had 300 jam jars produced and printed with the 80th Birthday and gave them away to everyone at the gig.
Crow Xp: That was nice!
Albert: Yeah, people appreciated it. But that’s the only reason for the jam jar… You can’t ask for a wine glass if you’re drinking your own wine, right?
Crow Xp: Which brings us to The Jacquard Club…
Albert: When my brother Tony and I started The Jacquard Club it was just a room in a pub. Once a week on a Thursday. Someone else owned the pub. But then we bought a de-licensed pub (which is a building that was a pub but had its license taken away) and we got it relicensed. But the room in the pub, the first club, we opened in 1965 and that finished in 1970. Then we opened the new Club from 1970 to 1980.
At the time of the first club we booked Paul Simon. He had just come to England and he was not known at all. We had a little spot… sort of like a religious 5 minutes… every morning at 10 o’clock to five past ten. And I liked the sound of him, so I said to Tony “Look, we ought to follow this up”. So Tony made inquiries and we booked him. I think we paid him £15. This was around 1963… something like that. So, we had Paul Simon at the club ever so small… Incredible. And then when we opened our new club we put up a concert in Norwich. There was this agent and we promoted the gig with him. He had this group… a women group… they were six beautiful American girls doing Folk songs & guitars. They were quite big in America, but not big in England. But I did a support with them. And he asked “Is there anyone else you could think of?” And I said “We can get Paul Simon”. So Paul Simon came down… by road… and the distance from London to Norwich… well, people mistake it… He turned up too late! And the agent wouldn’t let him play. Incredible, isn’t it? Well, that’s the last we saw of Paul Simon.
He was OK. He was alright. A little bit of a cold fish, you know. He didn’t have a lot of warmth. He liked what he did. A passionate heartfelt singer, but to talk to… he wasn’t very warm, very emotional. He was a nice man, but I can’t say he was the greatest person I ever met.
Crow Xp: As Paul Newman once said… You should never meet your heroes. Which makes me wonder about what you think of the music scene today…
Albert: I frankly think there’s just too much music now. Everywhere. Shops, online, Spotify, iTunes, TV, dada, dada… And then you have these so-called R&B singers… Those young girls… you know the way they sing. It’s just too much music. When I started you really had to work hard to find material. Now I go online, I go on YouTube and I can find anything I want. Just type it in… any song… old Blues song, old Blues singers… But in the day I’d find a song and say “Wow! That’s a great song!” I mean they are still great songs but it’s so much easier now and it takes away a bit of the glamour of it all… when things come too easy in your life, you know.
Crow Xp: Yeah, I remember too well the glorious satisfaction of recording a tape from radio without jingles…
Albert: Yeah, they’d interrupt the songs. That was so annoying. But essentially for me in a song, any song (I like Andy Williams doing My Colouring Book, Bob Dylan, the old Sinatra songs like Once upon a time a girl with moonlight in her eyes… Absolutely gorgeous!)... for me the lyrics are the most important thing. I like the words. Cause you can feel the words. And if you feel the words, you can do the delivery. I don’t care what song… a Pop song, a Rock song, a Jazz song, Blues, Skiffle… I don’t really care. I don’t put a name on songs. They’re just great songs.
So, the music scene… there’s too much music… most of it crap… but essentially I will still like the songs if I like the lyrics.
Crow Xp: You have stayed in Norwich all your life though you could have left for a major career. I know Norwich means Home to you and instead of asking a question on it I will invite our readers to have a look at the documentary at the end of the interview.
Albert: Yeah, Norwich means everything to me. I love the city so much. People will understand when they watch it, I believe. Plus, I’m a big fish in a little pond. And all fame is temporary… As I always say to people: You’re only as good as your last gig.
Crow Xp: Given that view on life… what are your expectations?
Albert: I’ve got very few. I’d like to do another concert but I… When you once said to me “Can I be frank with you, Albert?” And you asked “Why do you keep putting yourself down all the time?” I didn’t mind that, by the way. It’s fine… The trouble is: I suffer so much with anxiety… I’ll be 85 pretty soon, next June… so I should do my 85th Birthday concert… But I’m not planning on… I’m too anxious. Then I’ll drink. I’ll drink Brandy. I’ll drink before I play and then there’s a critical time… you know of musicians & being an artist yourself… you’ll know that if you’ll drink too much you mess up. If you drink just the right amount you’re OK. But once you get the taste of the little bugger… I’ve been pissed so much on stage and messed things up.
So… what are my expectations? Expectations to me at 85 is that I hope for a few more years, of course… I did a song called Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but no one wants to die…
Expectations… Ambitions… A bit of a tough one… I think I really don’t have anything concrete to say about it. What I would say is that most of my life opportunities have come to me. Someone might just ring me up today for something & I’ll do it. I don’t have any expectations right now… unless they come to me. Does that make sense?
Crow Xp: It does.
Albert: I have a friend who owns a studio and is trying to get me there and record my stuff. I mean, that might happen… but we’ll see. I wish I didn’t suffer all this anxiety. The pressure & stuff of what I do.
I do hope to get reunited with my wife. It was my fault we separated. But that would be one of my greatest wishes before I die.
Crow Xp: We’re having such a wonderful time, but I know you must be tired by now… One last question: What would you tell young people starting up in music? From your experience.
Albert: Certainly from my experience - because I’ve always done it – I have always been true to myself. When I like something, whether other people do or don’t, I'll stick to what I like. I believe in it. I believe in what I sing. And I'll give you a little thing about that.
I started playing in pubs. That was my little food bank I had. And Elvis Presley had come along by that time… Bill Haley & The Comets… ‘bout 1956… and you’d get the Jailhouse Rock or Heartbreak Hotel or whatever was in the tops at that time. Well, I didn’t wanna do Elvis Presley songs. So the pubs always wanted you to do the current pop music, but I didn’t believe in it. That wasn’t me. That was them. Elvis Presley.
So that’s why I opened the Club. Because that was my Club and I could do what I wanted to do. And that’s when I came up with the line: Only those who do love me need attend! Because I decided if you don’t like what I sing just don’t come to the Club. Just as simple as that.
So I always stuck to be true to what I wanted to do. For emotional reasons. For human reasons. You know... to show your passion.
Crow Xp: Well said. I have learned quite a bit today. Thank you for sharing your words & experience. And thank you for the contribution you have given to the world of Jazz & Blues.
Albert: It’s great that we have had this meeting, because it means a lot. Technology brings people together. It does make the world a bit smaller. But it’s nice. Because now I know you… not just from the posts & other interviews. You do give me comfort. It’s people like you taking interest in music and people like me which is very rewarding. Bye, darling. God bless you!