During my years spending afternoons with Leroy Cooper he told me stories that paint a picture of American musical history. Nat 'King' Cole was somebody that played a major part in his youth.
"Back in the ‘40s I went to a little church school down in Austin, Texas, Huston-Tillotson," Cooper said. "We used to call it the Pride of the Great Southwest. It was across town from the University of Texas. It was a Methodist school. They’d teach you to be a teacher or a preacher.
"It was a beautiful school, Huston-Tillotson. The band would play and the choir would sing and the president of the college would beg us to play The Bells of Saint Mary and it would make him cry.
"The president of the college would tell the students: 'In the early years, our forefathers got together to bring this institution about to lift the ban of ignorance…' he would say to us."
"People like Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Adam Clayton Powell used to come to the school. Every Wednesday night we had a celebrity speaker. They were so happy to see a bunch of kids trying to get educated. I enjoyed it. I played in the school band three years. I was the lead alto player which was a big deal. We had to try out for the school band like a football player. You earned a scholarship. I didn’t have to pay for nothing but books. Everything else was a freebee, food, dormitory.
"Every time Nat King Cole Trio would come through to play, our band would play the opening for them and then the Nat King Cole trio would play. All those bands would come through there and we would see those musicians dressed in those latest styles.
"Nat King Cole, he brought his wife. Well he wasn’t married to Maria then. He brought his girlfriend down. He was playing some job for the school so we used to go and watch them play tennis. I was really watching his girl in those tennis outfits. You know, a little young boy, he was laughing at us. Teenagers. Oh man, he was hitting the ball."
"We school boys didn’t have nothing. We’d be listening to the bands and the professor would say, “Stay in school.”
In another session Cooper talked about his experiences in Birmingham and the south touring with Ray Charles in the early days.
"Down there It got so bad when we’d play a gig they’d say, “No drinking in this dressing room. And if we catch one of you drinking in the dressing room you’re all going to jail. Everybody was calling home on the public phone out there. “Don’t stay too long on that phone.” Picky, picky, picky, picky, picky. To me, Birmingham was the worst place in the world.
"Nat King Cole was from Birmingham and I read that they had him going through the back door in the auditorium. Well with Ray, when our bus came in, they had us pull around to the back and we had to go in the back door."
Copyright © 2011 Susan Cross – All rights reserved