There are times when you realize that you just can’t let go of the past. Times when you look back at your history and come to the conclusion that – no, you are not just going to let things go – that certain past events have to be corrected.
Such is the case with Ottawa’s Cooper Brothers. Having just released “Southbound” their second CD in three years, Dick, brother Brian and the remainder of their band are determined to right a wrong that they suffered almost 33 years ago when a promising career on the Capricorn Record label was disrupted when that label declared bankruptcy in 1980. Further setbacks occurred when a fourth album, “Reach For The Sky” was lost when their financial investor fell afoul of the bank and they seized the masters. And then, to top it all, the band lost lead singer Terry King to cancer in 1998.
All of this seemed to conspire against a Cooper Brothers’ comeback. Dick Cooper himself declared it the last straw when “Reached For The Sky” was seized by the bank. “That was it for me. At that point I personally thought we were finished,” explained Cooper over the phone. “To me, that ship had sailed.”
But even as he went into a semi-retirement, establishing himself as a recording studio owner (with brother Terry), a TV series writer (“You Can’t Do That On Television) video games designer, author of a book titled Jukebox, and now, a song writing teacher at Ottawa’s Algonquin college, Cooper still felt there was unfinished business.
“What Brian and I were looking for was closure, something we never received when the bank pulled the plug on our fourth album,” explained Cooper, the band’s guitarist and lead songwriter. “We had unfinished business. Capricorn robbed us of a promising career, we lost Terry, we had suffered all of these setbacks but both Brian and I felt there was still a final chapter to write.”
The Cooper Brothers comeback was sparked in 2006 when Capitol EMI/ Pacemaker decided to release”The Best Of Cooper Brothers”, a compilation of their first three releases plus four songs the band added from the fourth (unreleased record). “I had no right to record those four songs but I thought `what the hell, if the bank wants, they can sue me,” explained Cooper. “None of our previous albums had been released on compact disc and we still had fans asking for something, we were still getting decent airplay around Ottawa so it was time to get something out.”
The surviving members, planned to launch the CD with a small informal concert at the Prescott Inn in Ottawa where they planned to play just four songs. “We had played their many times before, the place only holds about 150 people, “said Cooper. “It was by invitation only but radio and the local press announced the date and as we are going down to the club for a sound check in the afternoon, there is already a line forming out of the door. We had only rehearsed four songs but it was obvious these people were expecting a full concert so we started to call around to all our musician friends and we staged a jam session.”
Buzzed by the success of that gig, Brian and Dick started to contemplate a comeback but it was a one-off gig opening for James Taylor at the Ottawa Bluesfest in July 2008 which got Dick’s creative juices flowing. That day they played before 25,000 fans at the festival and the response they received reaffirmed that a comeback was possible. “I sat in my backyard and wrote song after song after song,” noted Cooper. “When I presented them to Brian, he said `So where have you been for the past 20 years.”
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Dick ran the material past good friend Colin Linden who was equally enthused and agreed to produce their first record in 27 years in Nashville. Appropriately titled “In From The Cold”, the 2010 CD saw the band return to their country rock roots with contributions from former Capricorn roster mate Delbert McClinton and Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy. It’s a momentum that has continued with the band’s new CD, titled Southbound that was launched with the single of the same name in April accompanied by a humorous video depicting Canadian snowbirds heading south to beat our freezing winters.
This CD was recorded at The Tragically Hip’s Bathhouse Studios in Bath Ontario with Colin Cripps producing and Cooper admits it’s a bit of a budget release yet the final result is as strong as previous material. “The reality is that the `Southbound’ single release got hardly any radio airplay – which was shocking to us. CMT wouldn’t touch the video, never gave it a look and current country radio seems to be programmed by 21-year-old guys in cowboy hats who don’t seem to have time for us old fuckers.”
Add to this, the record doesn’t have any major label support and the band is not represented by a major booking agency so it has been tough for them to get gigs outside of the Ottawa region. “When you have six or seven members in the band, you have to be making decent money to justify touring especially out west,” explained Cooper. “Airplay on the album would open up everything for us, but in the meantime we’ll just keep pushing along. We have some Ottawa dates and a big concert at Ottawa’s Centre Point Theatre next March where we celebrate the 40th anniversary of our first single.”
Certainly touring and getting airplay wasn’t a problem back in 1978 when the Cooper Brothers were the first Canadian band ever to be signed to Macon, Georgia’s prestigious Capricorn Record label, a label which boasted the likes of The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop and Delbert McClinton. A label which triggered a whole Southern rock movement that also included The Eagles, Poco, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Flying Burrito Brothers and other Southern rock bands like Molly Hatchet and Blackfoot. This was the music that dominated North American radio at that time and The Cooper Brothers fit this scene like a glove.
Brothers Dick and Brian Cooper fronted a band which also included lead vocalist Terry King, Rob Holtz, Darwin Demers, Ed Binn and John Steele. Launched originally in1974, the Coopers, under the management of Alan Katz, recorded a couple of unsuccessful singles for Polydor Records, produced by Five Man Electrical Band front man Les Emerson before Gary Cape took over and produced their first self-titled LP. Such was the quality of this debut album, that a strong bidding war was triggered with Phil Walden’s Capricorn label luring them into their stable.
“At the time, Capricorn was positioned as the ultimate boutique label, “reflected Cooper. “They seemed to have everything going for them; they were a perfect fit for our band. All the bands on their label were people we respected.”
The story is that Capricorn’s A&R chief David Herscher thought his industry friends were playing a joke on him when he heard The Cooper Brothers tape. He assumed it was the new album by The Eagles. When he learned the true identity of the band on the tape, he immediately signed them.
It seemed to be a sound decision when the band’s debut album hit the U. S charts fuelled by radio hits such as “The Dream Never Dies” and “Rock & Roll Cowboy” and they toured extensively throughout North America with the likes of the Doobie Brothers, Marshall Tucker and Delbert McClinton. Yet by the time, the Coopers went to record their second album, Pitfalls Of The Ballroom on 1979, events were conspiring against them.
“The first sense I got that something was wrong was when we were recording the second album in Miami,” explained Cooper. “They were insistent on us writing singles, they were adding things like The Bee Gees horn section to the arrangements. The Allman Brothers had broken up and the label was acutely aware of what was happening on radio with the Bee Gees and the disco movement.”
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“So we released “Know Her When I See Her” as our first single off the new album,” noted Cooper. “That and “Show Some Emotion” were very commercial songs but they weren’t us. They were more pop than we ever were. We should have been left to our own devices but what do we know?
Their first single off the second album, “Know Here When I See Her” initially chalked up solid numbers off the Billboard Charts but one day, the song simply disappeared off the chart. “We just got a call saying Capricorn had gone out of business and to all intent and purpose, they were toast! We had no prior indication that they were in trouble but, just like that, they were gone – and so was all our money. It turns out Phil Waldern was into PolyGram for something like 14 million dollars so they just pulled the plug on the label. At that point we knew we were in trouble!”
The album and two singles; “Know Her When I See Her” and “Show Some Emotion” still fared well on Canadian radio but Polygram, having been stiffed by Capricorn, was in no mood to support Capricorn acts. “There was major fallout,” acknowledged Cooper. “Lots of legal shit, for the next two years we couldn’t do anything.”
To keep the band active, The Coopers recorded an independent third album with Cape and Les Emerson helping to produce “Learning To Live With It” in 1981 but the fallout from Capricorn’s bankruptcy still loomed over the band and the record received little exposure. Even worse events occurred when they regrouped to record a fourth independent release, “Reach For The Sky” in 1983 with Five Man Electrical Band’s Les Emerson co-producing. “Without telling tales out of school, the person who financed the album, defaulted payment on the bank so they just seized our masters”.
That seemed to be it for the Coopers. Brian Cooper joined up with Terry King and Les Emerson to form a trio that played around the region, Dick Cooper pursued a career which involved running a recording studio and writing for television . He also vented his frustrations at the music industry by writing a novel in 2007 titled Jukebox, the key figure Poet and his band Boyslost are autobiographically references to his experiences with Capricorn and subsequent personal exploits in the music biz, this while also functioning as a head designer at an Ottawa-based video games company Artech Studios.
“When Terry died, we all really thought that was it as far as making a comeback, we were so close, Terry was like family,” reflected Cooper. “But when the Best of CD came out and we did the Ottawa show with James Taylor, we felt re-charged and we also felt we owed it to Terry’s legacy to carry on.”
So the Coopers are back in the spotlight with a new indie CD (on their own Gunshy Productions label). Yes it’s a struggle but the band has been buoyed by excellent reviews to “Southbound” and there’s a positive spirit that’s energizing the band. The key thing being that they are doing it on their own terms. “If Brian and I want to end it now, it’s our decision. It’s not someone telling us what to do, “concludes Cooper. “We said to ourselves, `let’s do a couple more albums and see how it goes’ But from now on we are in control and things are looking like we made the right decision.