Flaunt: Tony Cook Interview
- February 09, 2011
This is an excerpt from an interview written by Maxwell Williams for Flaunt, published February 2011.
At a recent small party up in the Hollywood Hills, I was asked to provide music. Given that there was just a five CD changer, I had to be creative and only pick things that slayed all the way through. One of my selections was the recent Stones Throw release of Tony Cook’s Back to Reality. The album is a combination re-issue and re-assessment, though not really either—it’s comprised old, dusty, formerly-closet-bound tracks Cook brewed up in the ‘80s, remixed by Peanut Butter Wolf, along with new vocals on one track by Stones Throw singer Dâm-Funk. The record is that perfect blend of joyful party R&B funk that sounds timeless and ‘80s-chic at the same time. When Cook made these songs, he was playing mostly in other bands as a sideman, but these productions reveal a complete studio savant. PBW had been jamming “On the Floor,” the closest thing Cook had to a hit with his group The Party People, when he decided to look up the cat that made it. To his surprise, Cook was still jamming out, only he’d escaped to Orlando, Florida and played small shows around town. I gave Tony Cook a call at his 404 area code number and chatted him up about his time in James Brown’s band, the early days of American Funk, and late ‘70s European pop music. He was jovial and kind and fully ready to tell the world his story.
Where are you at? Are you in Georgia?
No, Orlando. A lot of people get confused because I have a 404 area code. I got this phone when I was living in Georgia, and everybody knows this number so I don’t dare get rid of it.
I still have a New York number on my cell phone, and I live in L.A.
Well, you know what I’m talking about.
How long have you lived in Orlando for? I lived in Tallahassee for a while.
I’ve been living down here since 1996.
I was there in ‘99 to about 2003.
Oh, you was down this way when I was there.
And I’ve actually been to Augusta, Georgia before.
Oh, you have!
I interviewed James [Brown] at his house.
Oh! You’ve been over to the ranch!
I’ve seen the goats and everything.
[Laughs.] We took the bus over there one time. We have rehearsed over there.
You grew up in Augusta, and him as well. What made Augusta so funky?
Well, Augusta could handle it. It’s just a funky town. I was fortunate to grow up the time I did grow up. I started messing around with instruments in ’69 or ’70; I was about 12 or 13 when I started playing.
Did somebody teach you to play?
I had a couple of friends who I grew up with, and their father was a musician. We wanted to put a band together, and one of them wanted to play the bass, and the other one wanted to play the guitar, so of course someone had to play the drums. I really wanted play the bass, actually! So anyway, I ended up playing the drums; I had that groove for the drums anyway. [Their father] initially taught us. I bought myself a little drum set, and I taught myself by listening to records.
Right. What records were you teaching yourself off of?
Well, there was one record that I remember called ‘Cool Aid.’ You know I’ve been looking for that record and I can’t find it!
Do you know who’s it by?
I can’t remember who the artist was, but I liked the beat; it had a nice beat. [Ed: I later emailed Cook, who confirmed that the song was ‘Cool Aid’ by Paul Humphrey and The Cool-Aid Chemists from 1969: ‘This is the song. I haven't heard it in 40 years,’ he wrote.] There was other records. I didn’t keep up with who the artists was, but I liked the beat. Then I got a hold of a J.B.’s record. ‘Gimme Some More’. And I liked that beat. So I practiced off of ‘Gimme Some More.’ I didn’t know that the J.B.’s was James Brown’s band at the time. But I liked the beat, and that was one my records that I poked around with.
But he must have been a towering figure in your town, though? He must have been the hero, right?
Well, yes he was. But he lived in New York for a long time.
Yes, that’s true.
Then he moved back to Augusta. And he bought a radio station that he was shining shoes in front of [when he was a kid]. When he bought that radio station, he had the program director start playing mostly R&B and Soul. That gave us a different outlet. It was his station, WRDW. The top station in Augusta at that time was WBBQ. WBBQ played a variety of pop, and then every now and then they would play some soul records. Here and there. But we didn’t get a constant dose of Top 40 soul and R&B ‘til [Brown] bought his radio station.
Now your first band, did you ever cut a record or anything?
No, no. We didn’t cut anything like that back then.
But you played shows around, you and your friends?
Yeah, we poked around, and we got lucky. We was fortunate to learn how to play by backing famous artists. Our first break was this artist ‘Geater’ Davis. He was around the area a lot. That was our first break, and it really locked me in and inspired me to the drums. All those acts, when they come to town—I had a little rehearsal house. It originally was a tool shed, and we turned it into a rehearsal house, and then in later years, I turned it into a recording studio. And so ‘Geater’ Davis, he came back there, and we was rehearsing one day, and he said, ‘You got a nice little beat. I want you to go and find this guy named Poppa Daddy. I want you to see him play.’ Poppa Daddy, he has one hand, his left hand got cut off. I think he was working at a mill years earlier. So, he’d take a drumstick and an ace bandage, and he would wrap that ace bandage around his drumstick. And [Davis] said, ‘If you don’t look at Poppa Daddy, you wouldn’t know any difference. You’d just think you was listening to a bad drummer…’
‘And then when you look at Poppa Daddy play, you’d be amazed, because he got one hand! And what he can do with that one hand, you can do much more cause you got two hands!’ So that inspired me, and I looked up Poppa Daddy, and [Davis] was not lying! [Laughs.] When I saw Poppa Daddy playing, what he couldn’t didn’t have with his hand, he transferred it to his foot.
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