The Island Arts Foundation (IAF) is known for bringing some legendary talent to this Island. But they’ve really outdone themselves this time. Last Sunday afternoon, Leroy ‘Hog’ Cooper appeared for the inaugural show at the IAF’s brand new Purple Heart Theater. Playing with Ray Charles – an American icon if there ever was one - for more than 20 years certainly qualifies the Hog as a blues legend, and I spoke with the amenable Mr. Cooper this week about what life was like on the road with the late, great Ray Charles.
“I came up in a music family,” Cooper began. “My grandfather played with the Ringling Brothers Circus Band.” Leroy, who is now 80, was born in Dallas, Texas, and told us that that was the place to be back then. “I remember the first time I saw Duke Ellington’s band,” he said. “I was just a kid, but I took one look at those shiny horns and pretty tuxedos and I was knocked out! My dad asked me if I liked it, and I said ‘That’s for me!’”.
Cooper said that growing up in Dallas was very exciting for him. “Everybody that was a star came though there,” he told me. “I came from south Dallas, and we had our own theater there called the Century Theater. When I was a kid, I used to roll my tire up to the window so I could climb up and watch Louie Armstrong play.”
Leroy started playing music in high school, and attended the prestigious Huston-Tillotson College (now called Huston-Tillotson University) in Austin, Texas on a music scholarship. While Cooper attended, his 18-piece school band – the Huston Collegians – opened frequently for Nat King Cole. Jackie Robinson was the basketball coach there, and when he left to become the first African-American to play in baseball’s Major Leagues, Cooper’s college band provided the music. “Nobody could believe us, that as college boys we could play like we did,” he said.
It was also during college that he acquired his nick-name. “Some little guy in college called me, ‘You big hoghead’. Boy, everybody thought that was hilarious. I was ‘Pig’ first, then I went to ‘Hog’. Too much spaghetti and wine!” Leroy said, laughing.
When Cooper left school and joined the Army, he played in the band in the 315th Army in Korea, honing his horn chops. “I met a lot of celebrities-to-be in the Army, guys that went on to be famous, like Pepper Adams – who would become a big jazz artist,” Hog said.
It was during Cooper’s Army years that he first met the legendary Ray Charles. “I grew up with Fathead Newman, and he was in Ray’s band,” said Cooper. “And I had been hearing about this fantastic piano player that was blind, so one day I went to hear him. This was at the 1952 session with Zuzu Bollin. I was just a spectator that day,” he told us.
When Cooper got out of the Army, he returned to Dallas and began working in local bands. It wasn’t long, though, before childhood friend Fathead Newman, who frequently played with Cooper, asked him to join Ray’s band in 1957. Cooper told us that Fathead was on the baritone sax and wanted to switch to tenor. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come play baritone and I’ll play tenor?’ and then Ray Charles’ manager called. I couldn’t believe it,” said Leroy.
“I went in for a brief call-in and ended up being in the band for 20 years.”
Working with Ray was like nothing Cooper had ever experienced before. “I was working with these little local bands,” he said. “Ray was more organized – uniforms and so forth. It’s funny – I used to like playing with those little bands because it was 8 guys trying to sound like 18, we always tried to pull together. I learned later that that was very different, because so many guys in bands were trying to outdo each other. But we weren’t like that in Ray’s band. We wanted to sound good as a unit.”
Thanks to Ray, Cooper came to respect his craft even more. “He approached music from a serious aspect,” said Cooper. “I learned to really appreciate and try to learn more on my art.” Playing with Ray Charles even landed Leroy a small speaking part in the 1964 movie melodrama, ‘Ballad in Blue’, that was filmed in Ireland by director Paul Henreid.
“Oh, I remember being on the road with Ray,” said Cooper. “We’d be crammed into this station wagon, playing tobacco warehouses in North Carolina, where Ray was booked for $350 a night. I saw him grow from that station wagon to busses, to his first airplane and even his first jet.”
Cooper retired from the Ray Charles Orchestra in 1976, settling down at a full-time gig at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. “I met my wife, Clemmie, 32 years ago when I was in Los Angeles with Ray,” Leroy told us. “She got me off the road. I signed with Disney because it was a regular job. It was tough at first, though. I came to Florida not knowing anyone, and it was weird. I had to get accustomed to a different lifestyle – I had to learn how to adjust.”
Leroy told me that he still managed to bump into people from his past, even all the way down in Florida. “I remember, not long after I got to Disney, the Temptations came to Orlando and they were looking for local musicians. It turns out that the conductor was one of my old teachers from college! Everybody cracked up after rehearsal when he and I sat around, reminiscing about college days.”
Even though Hog wasn’t a full-time member of the band anymore, he continued to play with Ray whenever his band would pass through Florida. “And we kept in touch, too,” said Cooper. “Ray and I were friends, and he would always keep me posted on the health of the guys still in the band. I used to get a kick out of that, it would bring back memories.”
Hog told me that he occasionally makes it back to his old stomping grounds in Dallas. “The last time I was there was last year, when I was a guest speaker at the University of Texas. They had my high school reunion at one of my relatives’ houses,” he said. “Can you believe they had the girl I took to the high school prom there? They had all these people there just to celebrate me returning. I really enjoyed being able to show them the little duplex in my neighborhood where Ray used to live and the market where he used to get his groceries on a tab. Ray always remembered where he came from, even when he had a big fine mansion in California.”
Leroy and Clemmie raised their kids in Orlando. Their daughter, who was only 7 years old when they first came to the Sunshine State, is now 40 and Cooper is proud of his grandson who just graduated high school. “He’s joining the Army, too, just five days after I play down there for you folks,” he said.
Leroy joined a band called the Smokin’ Torpedos, when he came to play at the Purple Heart Theater. Led by Jeff Willey, the band met Cooper when the two were accidentally double booked at an event, according to Hog. “We liked each other, so I play with them every once in a while,” Cooper said.
The Smokin’ Torps have been building some pretty impressive credentials in their own right, having won the International Blues Competition in Memphis last year, and just recently finished a gig where they opened for the Blues Brothers – Dan Akroyd and Jim Belushi – at the House of Blues in Orlando.
Cooper and the Smokin’ Torps brought the house down Sunday when they introduced the Beach community to their smokin’ blues. We are fortunate to have such talented musicians play on our little Island, and look forward to hearing more of them in the future!