Alabama native Dick Cooper talks about the legends of Muscle Shoals, Jerry Wexler and The Swampers

"I really don't have any fears about music's future, it has existed longer than mankind's other languages. It will continue to exist as long as there are people to make it."

Dick Cooper: Sweet Home Alabama

Birmingham native Dick Cooper has worked as a journalist, editor, photographer, museum curator, record producer, artist manager, road manager, music publisher, and educator. As a writer his work has appeared in a variety of newspapers, magazines and music publications in the U.S. and Europe.

His photographs have been displayed by the Smithsonian, Alabama State Arts Council, Florence-Lauderdale Public Library, Alabama Music Hall of Fame; have appeared in the biographies and documentaries of Jerry Wexler, Etta James, Eddie Hinton, the Drive-By Truckers, the film “Muscle Shoals,” on the covers and in booklets of over 35 albums, and on MTV News. In the mid-80s, he revitalized the career of Eddie Hinton, creating music publishing and record companies, and releasing “Letters From Mississippi” in seven European companies. He has management skills have also taken artists such as LeBlanc-Carr, The Rossington Band, and The Drive-By Truckers across the country and to Europe.

"My dream is writing a couple of books. One will be about my experiences in Muscle Shoals, and the other about my time with the Drive-By Truckers."               Photo by Sheri Wiggins

He co-produced the Drive-By Truckers “Southern Rock Opera,” which received a four star review in Rolling Stone, and worked in various production positions during the recording of albums by Bob Dylan, Mavis Staples, Joan Baez, Etta James, Dire Straits, McGuinn-Hillman, Delbert McClinton, John Prine, Panama Red, and many others.

He was the first curator of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and created most of the exhibits seen in the museum today. He is a member of the board of directors of the Muscle Shoals Music Association, the Music Committee of the W.C. Handy Music Festival, and MENSA, and earned a black belt in Shaolin Chuan Fa Kung Fu.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Dick Cooper’s progress and what characterize your music philosophy?

I came to the Shoals as a journalist, and initially approached the music industry from a journalist's perspective. In the mid-70s, on the advice of my good friend Johnny Wyker, I decided to change careers, which required a change in how I viewed the industry. As a journalist I concentrated on Who, What, When, Where and How. As I shifted gears, I concentrated on solving problems that arose during performances, recordings, songwriting sessions and the events leading up to them. Since my first job in the industry as road manager for LeBlanc-Carr I have earned my keep by keeping things working. 

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Working as production assistant for Barry Beckett, Oct 20, 1978 to May 15, 1984, was unquestionably the greatest time in my life. Barry was a wonderful person to work with. He was an exceptionally talented musician and the greatest boss I ever had. We also got to work with some very talented artists, but most importantly to me, was the opportunity to work with Jerry Wexler. Wexler was one of the people who created the music industry as we knew it at that time. Beckett and Wexler are the source of my success in the business.

The worst moment was when Beckett told me he was moving to Nashville. We had an apartment there in 1983, and I learned very quickly that I wouldn't thrive under those circumstances. He asked me if I was going with him, and I told him, "I would rather starve than move to Nashville." I spent the next couple of years proving that statement.

"We always make good music. It doesn't matter what style of music it is, Music made in Muscle Shoals is good."                                                          Photo by Anthony Scarlati

Why did you think that the Muscle Shoals and FAME Studios continues to generate such a devoted following?

We always make good music. It doesn't matter what style of music it is, Music made in Muscle Shoals is good. A big part of this is the overall music community and the language of music which they speak. It is a broad based community with roots in all styles of music. Unlike most places Muscle Shoals has historically been an area that ignored conventional prejudices. 

In 1963, while Eugene "Bull" Connor was ordering the Birmingham Police to assault Civil Rights demonstrators, 125 miles away Rick Hall was recording a Black artist, Jimmy Hughes, with an all white band. It was polar opposites. In Birmingham you had the example of how bad life can be when people are divided over superficial issues. In Muscle Shoals you had the example of what can be accomplished when we work together, and each brings his intrinsic talent into the mix.

What are the best jamms you ever saw and what are some of the most memorable gigs?

Well, I really haven't witnessed that many "jams." As Jimmy Johnson says, "Jimmy don't jam," and in the studio music is too important to do much jamming. I guess the best impromptu music I've witnessed is at the parties that happen from time to time around the Shoals. The one that comes to mind is Pete Carr joining the Decoys, (Scott Boyer, guitar; David Hood, bass; Kelvin Holly, guitar; N.C Thurman, keys, and Mike Dillon, vocals and drums) and Dennis Allred, percussion, in a version of Bob Seger’s "Mainstreet." Pete's wife Char Price (Charlotte Price) has a phone video of the song on YouTube.

There have been many memorable gigs. The Drive-By Truckers opening for Bob Dylan at the Meriwether-Post Pavilion, Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Sportatorium in Miami a few days before the plane crash, 2002 Farm Aid, John Prine in Toronto in 1980, The Donnie Fritts benefit in 2000, which was Waylon Jennings final performance, and also included performances by Kris Kristofferson, Delbert McClinton, Lee Roy Parnell, Tony Joe White, Billy Swan, Buzz Cason, Donnie Fritts, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. 

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Meeting Jerry Wexler is by far the top of the list. Jerry was one of the most significant people in American music, and he became my friend. He gave me the best advice when as a journalist I asked him how to cut a hit record, and he responded, "Put a Hit Act in the studio." It took several years to figure out how to tell a "Hit Act" when I saw one, but it kept me from wasting a lot of time.                                       Photo: Sam Phillips, Jerry Wexler and Dick Cooper

Do you remember anything funny with Jerry Wexler and Rick Hall?

In 1995, when Wexler inducted the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section into The Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Jerry came to town a few days early. He had been talking to Rick Hall for some time, but they had not faced each other since the Aretha Franklin session, which had blown up at the end of a very productive first day. During the session the basic tracks for "I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Loved You)" and "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" were recorded. I was working with Jerry, and he asked that I drive him over to FAME Studio. Jerry Wexler and Rick Hall are two men with similar personalities. They have both profited and been injured by their association. Yet when they met they did so as old friends. They skirted some issues, and never got near the Aretha issue, but it was clear they were both delighted to renew their friendship. It is a good example that in Muscle Shoals there aren't any forever enemies.

Are there any memories from Eddie Hinton and The Swampers which you’d like to share with us?

Eddie was very difficult to manage. I tried for a year and a half, and found it very frustrating. But we did manage to get the "Letters From Mississippi" album released. Much of the credit for that release goes to Kalle Oldby of Swedish National Radio. Kalle not only wrote the liner notes for the album, but also gave me a list of small record labels that might be interested. His advice led to the initial release in Sweden.

The Swampers, on the other hand were wonderful to work with. David Hood and Roger Hawkins bought motorcycles and joined in on the dirt bike excursions in and around the TVA power lines near Pickwick Dam in the mid-70s. They weren't quite as crazy as Jerry Masters, Johnny Wyker, Steve Melton, and I, but they joined in on some of the less dangerous rides. Jimmy Johnson has proven to be a great friend over the years. We toured together in 1988 when I was road manager for the Rossington Band, and he was mixing front of house. We were the opening act for Skynyrd's Tribute Tour. And of course being around Barry Beckett, was the greatest experience of my life.

"Working as production assistant for Barry Beckett, Oct 20, 1978 to May 15, 1984, was unquestionably the greatest time in my life." Photo: Dick Cooper, Barry Beckett and Don Gant

From the musical point of view what are the differences between Muscles Shoals music and other local scenes?

I guess it would be the quality of the music. The talent bar is pretty high and the pool very deep, so you find multi-generation combinations you don't find elsewhere. David Hood playing on his son's Bettye LaVette production, Scott Boyer III sitting in with the Decoys while his dad recovers from surgery, N.C. Thurman, pianist with the Decoys, playing and writing with a number of young bands drawing on his talent in many ways, Travis Wammack and his son Travis Wammack, Jr., a.k.a. Monkee Man playing together for years.

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

Barry Beckett and Jerry Wexler who died. Roger Hawkins and Wayne Perkins who are still with us, but aren't playing like they did for decades, real horns, the Muscle Shoals Music Association's Records and Producers Seminars, Wild Waterski Weekend parties, retail record stores with real records.

I really don't have any fears about music's future, it has existed longer than mankind's other languages. It will continue to exist as long as there are people to make it. I would hope the day will come when everyone has the ability to communicate in that language.

Photo: Steve Melton, Jay Johnson, Jerry Wexler, Dick Cooper, and Clayton Ivey, on the Etta James' Right Time project.

Which memory from Lynyrd Skynyrd, J. Geils Band, and Taj Mahal makes you smile?

While I was working with LeBlanc-Carr we opened for these bands. That was real exciting, but the real Skynyrd smiles came from my first encounter with the Jacksonville group. I promoted a show with a couple of friends April 22, 1974 in Florence, AL, that featured the Outlaws opening, Skynyrd headlining, and this guy named Jimmy Buffett we paid $75 to drive down from Nashville with another guitarist, Roger Bartlett, to play an acoustic set in front of the curtain while the bands' gear was changed out. Everything was fine as long as the crowd could hear the roadies hustling cases, but as soon as it quieted down behind the curtain a loud "Rock and Roll" rose from the crowd. It was soon followed by more shouts and heavy foot stomping. The Buffett set was cut short when he and Roger were drowned out. I wish I still had that Buffett contract. 

J. Geils Band was always fun to tour with. The music was great, the crew was friendly and helpful, and there was always something going on. We got along so well, they asked us to play their annual show at their old high school in Worcester, Mass. During the show one of the roadies went into the audience and threw what looked to be a joint on the stage in front of Bassist Danny Klein. At the end of the song, Danny bent down and picked it up, and lit it before the next song started. Suddenly a roadie dressed in a police uniform rushed onto the stage, stopped the music and started dragging Danny off stage. The crowd went wild. It was quite an exciting moment as the crowd thought he was being arrested, and they cheered loudly when he came back on stage to finish the set.

Taj Mahal has been one of my favorite artists since the early 70s, and my favorite experience in music happened in early March 1978, when LeBlanc-Carr opened six shows over three nights at The Paradise Club in Cambridge, Mass. LeBlanc-Carr had been hired to open, because Don Law thought they were a duo. When we showed up with a six piece rock band it was difficult. Taj had a seven piece band, and the Paradise is a relatively small club with limited backstage area for gear. The saving grace was that everyone in our band was a big Taj Mahal fan. Soon all the problems were resolved, including the two necessary set changes each night. Everyone joined in for the set changes, both bands’ roadies and all the band members, moved gear, which was piled high in every inch of free space backstage. The music was unbelievable. Taj began his first set the second night by sitting alone on the front of the stage with only a kalimba, making music as only Taj can. I've never enjoyed any performance more.

Photo: Dick Cooper, Bob Dylan, Terry Young, Regina Havis, Mona Lisa Young and Clydie King

How has the music business changed over the years? Do you believe in the existence of real Blues Rock nowadays?

The business has changed greatly since the 70s when I started. It is much easier to get your music heard. It is much easier to create, and is more forgiving for those of us with little talent. The Internet has made it possible for the average musician to promote his music without the need of a record company, publicity machine, radio promoters or even hard copies of the music. In most ways this has been good for the music creator. 

I'm not really sure exactly what you mean by real blues rock. We still have Gary Rossington playing his heart out. Younger groups like Skinny Molly and Derek Trucks kicking ass, as well as various 70s groups reuniting like Jackson Highway. I really don't see that style of music going away. At least not in the South.

Which incident of music history you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting with you?

Road weary Drive-By Truckers in the Dodge van we traveled 72,000 miles in during the “Southern Rock Opera” tour. The five band members and I with all our equipment, luggage, hopes and dreams, driving through Monument Valley, or the Pacific coast highway, or just parked in Wes Freed’s yard.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music world?

My grandson. He is 20 months old, and at my party at the end of the W.C. Handy Music Festival he was sitting in front of Guitarist Will McFarlane who was making eye contact with him while he was ripping up a song. Michael was bobbing on 2 and 4, and was really into it. He got distracted for a moment by someone taking his picture, then turned back to the band and continued bobbing, but was now on the 1 and 3. It only took him four or five seconds to realize he was doing it wrong, and he hesitated a moment an came back in on the 2 and 4. I laughed out loud. He made me real proud.

The most emotional musical experience I've had in the past few years was at the Jerry Wexler Memorial in New York. It was an incredible day, not only was the stage filled with some amazing talent, old friends, and artists with whom I had worked, but the audience also was filled with industry legends like Paul Schafer, and even Mitch Miller. Jerry's son Paul has posted the video of the memorial to YouTube. I was so overwhelmed by the end of the show I was crying, and it wasn't till I had an opportunity to see video that I realized they had a shot of me wiping a tear from my eye just as the credits began to roll. It is a rather long show, but well worth the time to watch.

"The business has changed greatly since the 70s when I started. It is much easier to get your music heard. It is much easier to create, and is more forgiving for those of us with little talent."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Wexler sent me a ticket to New York to spend a weekend with him at his Park Avenue apartment. He was putting together the music for the soundtrack of the Louis Malle film "Pretty Baby," for which he received an Academy Award nomination. His office had floor to ceiling shelves of records with a ladder attached to a track that ran around the room. Other than a window behind the desk, and a doorway to the hall the room was nothing but records. Jerry would ask me to retrieve a record, play a song, ask me what I thought, and if it wasn't right I would put it back.

I would love to have a couple of days in that room to just listen to what I've missed.

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? What is your DREAM & NIGHTMARE? Happiness is……

I don't have much free time, but I do enjoy traveling. Amsterdam is my favorite city, and whenever I go to Europe I usually fly there first. I really enjoy the natural beauty of Norway, and Scotland. I went to Vietnam three years ago as a cameraman with a documentary crew. That was a great experience. I got to spend some free time working at an orphanage there. The Vietnamese are great people, and are amazingly open and friendly. They are the happiest people I've ever encountered. I am also planning a trip to Costa Rica in September. 

My dream is writing a couple of books. One will be about my experiences in Muscle Shoals, and the other about my time with the Drive-By Truckers. I helped the Truckers record "Southern Rock Opera" then was the road manager for the tour that followed the release of the album. I have 136 rolls of film, live recordings and video.

I really don't have any nightmares. My life is good, and my happiness revolves around watching my grandson learn to love the people and things I love.

 

 

 

 

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