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Jack Cooke sits on top of the world

By John Lupton, March 2007

Page 2...

"I started on the guitar. When I first started playing in the music, me and my sister, we used two guitars, and we played in the church all the time. I played some in my brothers' band, us brothers had a band, the Cooke Brothers. I had a brother Curtis who played the banjo. Hubert played the bass fiddle, and I played the guitar. Matter of fact, Kenny Baker (Monroe's legendary longtime fiddler) played with us some back then, too, because his home was right close to us...he was from Jenkins, Ky., right across the line."

While still a teenager, Cooke signed on as bass player for the Stanley Brothers, Carter and Ralph. In those early years before the music had even come to be known as "bluegrass," the life of a traveling country musician was difficult and unforgiving, but the Stanleys were well on their way to prominence.

The experience was invaluable for Cooke, but the opportunity to play the "big time" was too good to pass up. "I worked with Carter and Ralph and loved their harmony singing, but I guess everybody in the music wants to be on the Grand Ole Opry...So I got a chance to try out for Bill (Monroe), and he told me, 'When you get ready, I'll be ready.' He told me that he'd give me a job because he liked my guitar playing and my singing. So, that's the way it happened. I gave Carter and Ralph my two weeks notice. Before Carter passed away (in 1966), me and him was friends up to the end. There were no hard words about me separating from them and going with Monroe."

"Carter said to me, 'Yeah, Jack, I always wanted to do that too.' Carter told me that - everybody wants to be on the Grand Ole Opry. I said, 'That's about right, Carter.' We had some good times, and then I got back with Ralph again."

In those grueling early days of bluegrass, bands played gigs wherever and whenever they could find them. A born storyteller, Cooke laughs as he recounts one night he almost didn't survive. "We'd play those drive-in theaters in the summer, and they'd always have those outdoor speakers where a car could pull up alongside of it and hold it in the window so they could hear the movie, and the singing. We'd always tell 'em, if you like what we're doing then blow them horns, for the hand, you know. There'd be a lot of them sitting in their cars, and when we got through with a number they'd blow the horn to show their appreciation."

"We were in Kentucky," he continues, "and we played on top of this concession stand that was right in the middle of this theater. They would show the movie out of that stand, sell popcorn and like that, and they'd have the projector in there. We went up on the side of the building, up the steps. They'd have floodlights up there, where they'd put the lights on you, and we'd do a show after the movie. We went up those steps, and I forgot how I got up there."

"The lights were bright and kind of got me blinded a little bit. I was thinking I was stepping on the step the way we came up, but I was missing that step (by) about six feet. Man, I was in mid-air!"

He pauses a few seconds to laugh again. "I had an armful of songbooks, and we'd tell 'em if they wanted the songbook, turn their parking lights on. That would give us a signal to go to the cars where they wanted one. So they'd turn their parking lights on, and we'd take the songbooks and go to each car like that and sell 'em a songbook."

"I had some songbooks under my arm, and I thought I was going to hit that step...there were some fans sitting down below me, and I tried to leap a little bit more to break my fall, and them people backed up when I done that. I tore my elbows up, and my knees a little bit. Carter hollered down from the microphone and said, 'Hey Jack, are you hurt?' I said, 'Nigh kilt...'"

Laughing as much at himself as at the story, Cooke drops the punch line. "Them car horns, they blowed for five minutes - they thought that was in the show!"

Even if "Sittin' On Top Of The World" is by his own admission something of a musical memoir, Jack Cooke is still having too much fun playing Stanley music and telling stories to give it up for the foreseeable future. "I've been with Ralph 37 years, and that's a long time to travel with one band. I've enjoyed it and am still liking it...Ralph says my voice is just as good today as it was 25, 30 years ago."

"So, I'll just hang in with him, you know...As long as Ralph plays, I guess I'll hang on, as long as my health and Ralph's health holds up - as long as we can stand it, I guess I'll be in there a little while longer."

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