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Shelby man lets his voice be heard again

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Two decades ago Steve Cook stepped away from a microphone, no longer performing or introducing the music that was the beat of his life. Thursday night at the Kentucky State Fair, he and some other Shelby Countians – Dan Eaton, David Rodgers and Nancy Cheak – will be an opening act for the Happy Together Tour of vintage rock stars.

By Steve Doyle

On Thursday night, Steven Lee Cook will do something he has done hundreds of times. He will walk onto a stage, grab a microphone, stare into the lights-hidden faces of thousands and unleash The Voice. He will break into a song you likely have heard and maybe even loved, and he will perform with only one knee-knocking difference from all those other stages and microphones: Cook is now 60 years old, and he hasn’t been part of a big-time performance in two decades, since, well, his voice was his life.

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In the stadium at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, where stars of the highest magnitude have performed in the past week, Cook and a band he has helped to bring together – including Danny Eaton and David Rodgers, who started all of this with him back in high school – will be part of an opening act, playing a half-dozen or so of those familiar songs and rousing the crowd for the main attraction. That would be the Happy Together Tour, featuring the Turtles, the Grass Roots, Gary Puckett, Mark Lindsay, Chuck Negron and other stars who dominated the exploding popular music era of the 1960s and 1970s, the era that produced Steve Cook and his voice.

Yes, this is a comeback for Cook, but he didn’t choose to commemorate that occasion as a wedding singer or to serenade a bat mitzvah. He is returning where he left – among the stars. The voice will be heard among golden oldie voices. There’s also one other difference:

“This group is not about trying to make it in show business,” he said. “It is about coming together as friends and recreating the sound and feel of the music our generation grew up with in the 1960s and 1970s.”

In 1992 Cook walked away from a musical career that was centered in Nashville, took its mail in Shelbyville but seldom sat still for much of anything. That career included recording sessions, TV appearances, conversing with musical giants and warming the crowds for many big-time pop and country performers, chasing that vapor trail about which millions of talented young singers and musicians have dreamed and precious few have caught.

In the way we measure careers around Shelby County, his was a pretty good bump against stardom. Yet, he gave it all up. Came home. Settled down with his wife, Angela, to raise their two daughters. Did his singing in church and occasional special event. Think of this as Rick Nelson becoming Ozzie Nelson, only in this episode, Oz hangs up the cardigan and returns to being Rick on stage again.

The voice returns. Steve Cook always has been about the voice.

Anyone who has known him since his first days in Shelbyville could see that. He liked basketball, hung out with older guys and wooed the girls, but Steve Cook was about the music, about the singing, about a microphone and about that voice. He had baritone. He had bass. He had range. He had talent.

And even if the voice wasn’t always providing the music, it always has been connected to the music...in various bands in high school, getting a radio gig at WCND-AM (940), Shelbyville’s first station, and then becoming the youngest in an all-star lineup at WAKY-AM (790) in Louisville, when it was one of the preeminent rock-and-roll stations in America. The voice got him these gigs.

His voice and his history also, got him the gig on Thursday night. But that was a long time arriving.

 

Starting in Middleton Heights

The story of all of this, like most any Cook shares, is a yarn that unrolls in rich detail and as if the end never will come or let you down when it does. For now, it hasn’t. Cook grew up in Eminence and moved to the Shelbyville suburb of Middleton Heights when he was in elementary school, and his first band played in his cousins’ garage in there.

“The members were cousins Faron Davenport, Larry Dale Davenport and Nathan Davenport,” he said. “Uncle Donnie purchased my cousins’ guitars and drums. The song we worked on over and over was ‘Li'l' Red Riding Hood’ by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. It came out in the summer of 1966, when I was 13 years old. Our first and only gig was when we played at the Shelbyville Moose Club when it was on the Mount Eden Road.”

But the voice had been unleashed, and two popular groups, Optical Illusion and the Misfits, let Cook hang around while they rehearsed and played, and in the fall of 1968 – after playing keyboard in another band briefly, he joined with Eaton – his bandleader and rhythm guitarist this Thursday – Rodgers – his lead guitarist – and Gary Clemmons, to form a group called Creatian, which was a familiar presence in the cafeterias at Shelby County HS and Southside Elementary, where the high schools held their proms and dances. Many a teen did the bump and the jerk and slow belly-rubbing dances to their cover tunes brought to life by Cook’s voice.

Cook: “The first rehearsal was at Gary's house in Bagdad. We later moved to Danny Eaton’s front porch in Jacksonville. Those summer and early autumn nights of rehearsal remain fresh in my mind. Sometimes we'd invite our girlfriends to attend practice. It was a fun time in the late sixties and early seventies.… Danny Eaton and Dave Rodgers put the band together originally. They were Shelby County Rockets. I was a Shelbyville Red Devil and later brought in fellow Red Devils Dennis Ellis on drums and after that Tommy Stillwell on drums and Steve Miller on keyboard. We played tunes from the Beatles, CCR, Santana and lots of other Top 40 hits we were hearing on 79WAKY at the time.”

 

Radio days

The mention of WAKY adds a thread of Cook’s story that remains unbroken. The rock station in Louisville has been a powerhouse for generations and the ultimate amplifier for Cook and his voice. Even today, in his retired-from-stage life, he sells advertising for the FM incarnation of the station (WAKY-103.5), where Johnny Randolph is the program manager, the man who first hired Cook as a spunky, 18-year-old. Without WAKY, the voice may have remained quiet or never matured. And how he got to WAKY is a story in itself – a story that has endured for four decades.

Other than singing, Cook’s voice first produced reel-to-reel tapes for the old drive-in on KY 55, doing voiceovers for the Top 40 music that was played over car speakers every two songs, inviting patrons to remember to visit the concession stand. “But I thought it was the greatest thing on earth,” he said.

“My next door neighbor out in Middleton Heights was Tom Hardin, the morning DJ at WCND. One day I told him I thought I'd like to get into that business. He told me he'd help me....He introduced me to station manager, Dean Harden, and assistant manager, Bob Colvin. I told them I would work hard and do a good job for them.

“A week later, there was a knock at our front door, and it was Tom Hardin. He said, ‘It's official, you now work in radio!’ I started out bringing on the Sunday afternoon religious broadcasts, then at the top of the hour in between their shows, I got to open the microphone for approximately two and a half seconds and say ‘...This is W-C-N-D Shelbyville, Kentucky.”

And Cook immersed himself in the business, studying and passing the complicated test to get licensed by the FCC to operate a station’s control board. He did a midday or afternoon air shift, playing country and rock music, read the news, did live remotes. “I also vacuumed floors, cleaned windows when asked and emptied the station’s waste baskets at night when I signed the station off the air,” he said.

“During those days most kids switched back and forth between WAKY and WKLO to hear their favorite songs, but most people I knew were mostly WAKY fans.

“I first met [WAKY star disc jockey] Gary Burbank and Johnny Randolph one Saturday night in 1968 at the Shelby County Fair. Those were the days when a new car was given away by drawing on the last night of the fair. They were there to promote WAKY and to see the horses show. I knew them from their photos on the weekly WAKY Kentuckiana Countdown surveys of all the hottest songs.

“I went over to Burbank and said, ‘How can I get into radio?’ He said, ‘Well this guy is Johnny Randolph, and he's the one who hires all our DJs.’ I introduced myself, and he said, ‘Try to get on here in Shelbyville at your local station, then bring me a tape, and we'll see what we can do.

“Several years passed, then I went to a classmate’s house and made a tape on his tape recorder by playing records on his record player and talking over them. When he got his driver’s license, he drove me down to 4th Street [where WAKY’s studio was located].

“What I didn't know was that saying to Gary Burbank and Johnny Randolph that I'd like to work at WAKY is kind of like walking up to Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus and saying I'd like to be a PGA touring pro.

“After I was on WCND for about a year, one Saturday afternoon…. I happened to turn around from the controls and look out the front window. A white Cadillac convertible was pulling up. Getting out was a guy wearing sunglasses and a suit like rock stars of the day wore. He came to the door, and it was locked. I put on Buck Owens and the Buckeroos and went out to see who this was.

“It was Gary Burbank. He said, ‘Hey, are you Steve?’ ‘Yes, and you're Gary Burbank!’ He said, ‘I'm on my way to emcee the Three Dog Night concert at the University of Kentucky...and I stopped out by the interstate to get some gas [at Doyle’s Interstate Standard]...when I went in to pay.… they had you on the radio, and I asked them. Who's that?...and they gave me your name and said the station is only a couple of minutes away. Would you like to do weekends for WAKY? I'll help you get on there and will personally give you any help you need.’

“Like I've always said, never underestimate the power of luck. That year WAKY had been named the ‘Top 40 Radio Station of the Year’ in the United States. I was surrounded by all my radio heroes that I'd listened to all my life growing up. Bill Bailey, John W. “Dude” Walker, Johnny Randolph, Gary Burbank, Jason O'Brien, Mason Lee Dixon and Mike Griffen, who was close to my age.”

 

Back to the stage

Shortly after beginning his gigs as the “Weekend Warrior” at WAKY, Cook, 18, joined another band, Monkey Meeks and the Colonels, a group managed by coworker Walker.

“When he approached me to join the band, he said the concept was to put together a teeny-bop group to rival the Osmonds and Jackson 5 with the difference being that we would also have female singers along with the guys doing background vocals and choreography. The group included eight background singers, four males and four females, dancing and singing behind this great-looking young guy with a super voice, Gary Meeks, aka Monkey Meeks. I was the bass singer.

“Our first national release was called ‘Take Me to Your Heart.’ It was released on the Roxbury label, which was owned by a gentleman by the name of Wes Farrell. Mr. Farrell also was the president and CEO of Teen magazine and 16 magazine. Everything seemed to be falling into place for the record to do very well. Then it happened.

“The same week that our single was released, the group The Defranco Family released their first single as well, and their band members included young ladies and guys singing background harmony and doing dance steps behind their lead singer. Their song was, ‘Heartbeat It's A Lovebeat’ and became a smash hit!

“For me, after working on the air seven days a week Monday thru Friday on 940WCND in Shelbyville and then Saturday and Sunday on 79WAKY for nearly four years straight, band practices on top of the radio jobs was wearing me down. I was doing the best I could with the choreography, but the truth was, when it came to this kind of dancing, I had two left feet. Dude and I had a private meeting. He was aware of the hours I was putting in on the air, and we decided that I would leave the band.”

The group had recorded in Dude's hometown of Memphis, Tenn., at Umbrella Productions on Union Street, and its producer was Bill Browder, who later would change his name to T.G. Sheppard and become a star on the country music charts.

“T.G. and I still stay in touch with each other,” Cook said. “He is a great guy and terrific singer.

 “During one of these sessions in Memphis, Dude told the group, I've got a surprise for you. Elvis is in town, and we're going out to Graceland, and you all are going to get to meet him. We were excited at the prospect of this, however when we arrived at the gate. Elvis's Uncle, Vester Presley, who worked the front gate at Graceland, informed us that Elvis had been called away unexpectedly and left word that we would get together the next time we were in Memphis.”

“I learned a lot from Dude and always thought it was very cool that he was the only disc jockey in America who had brought both Elvis and the Beatles on stage in concerts. In his den he had framed photos of himself with both acts backstage at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis.”

 

Shelby’s singers

Monkey and the guys may have gone off without him, but Cook kept developing the voice. He did four recording sessions in Nashville with the Jordanaires, the group that harmonized backup on many of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits. He opened for many big-name country acts, such as George Jones and Waylon Jennings. He stood in front of the crowds, his voice pierced the microphone. He performed regularly on the WHAS Crusade for Children.

He appeared three times on Nashville Now, Ralph Emery’s popular country music talk show that was featured in prime time on the now defunct Nashville Network. And he said he always was thinking about how best to promote the talent from his hometown.

“After the third time I was on Ralph Emery's number-one-rated Nashville Now, I was asked by a Louisville journalist how it felt to be the best singer from Shelby County,” Cook said. “I said that would be great if it were true but told her on that list I might come in somewhere in the twenties. She seemed surprised. I told her the names. Horace Brown was among the best entertainer/singers I'd ever heard anywhere...also Lewis Mathis Sr. and Jr....my cousin Larry Smith...Kevin Slucher...Ron Cheak and his wife, Nancy [part of this week’s show]...along with many talented musicians from Shelby County, including guitarist Byron Cutshaw. I left out another Shelby Countian who is a great pure country singer, Charlie Bill Montgomery.

“Before my second appearance on Nashville Now I spoke with several of Shelby County's local leaders to gain a feel for what would be advantageous to say about our community if the time and chance to do so presented itself. That night...I was introduced as being from Louisville...with very limited time, I didn't want to spend the few seconds there were correcting Ralph and his staff on live national TV. The third time I was on, it was corrected. But by then I had decided against going on the road

“I put those dreams on the shelf. A thirty-fifth wedding anniversary and three grandsons later, I'm glad I did.”

 

Career change

Actually, Cook never went on the road, saying he wanted to stay near home in Shelbyville and his wife, the former Angela Biagi, and daughters Sarah Beth and Meredith. All of his concert appearances were within driving distance of home – “From 1985 to 1992 I drove an extra 8,000-to-12,000 miles a year just for rehearsals and concerts,” he said – but there also was a time for him to step away from the mike, step away from the music, put to rest the voice.

After working for WAKY into the 1980s, he left to be an advertising representative for WHAS (840) and WAMZ (97.0) – he also for a time sold advertising at The Sentinel-News – when they still were owned by the Bingham family. He said he helped lure Terry Meiners from a rival station to the afternoon show on WHAS that has made him famous.

But after Sarah Beth was injured in a horrible auto accident in 1997, he took a long break and eventually left broadcasting and sold cars for nearly a decade.

“The brands I focused on were in dealerships with multiple brands available were Cadillac, Lincoln, Lexus, Jaguar, Honda and Hyundai,” he said.

But  Cook never let the music get away, even if the voice went silent. He stayed connected to radio and returned about 2 years ago to sell advertising for WAKY. His voice can be heard on the air occasionally, just like when he spun the discs himself, as Randolph still does.

On his Facebook page – nearly 3,400 friends strong – Cook sometimes pulls video and audio clips from the Internet and posts them with DJ persona, taking requests for special songs from individuals, giving a little background on the performers and the song itself, performing as the disc jockey of social media, it could be said.

 

The new group

But the voice didn’t want to remain quiet.

After Kentuckian Kevin Skinner won $1 million on the television show America’s Got Talent, Cook said he was encouraged by friends in Nashville to make a run at the prize. “Since the lady who came in second when Kevin won did so singing opera, it was felt that maybe the Sinatra material would appeal to a wider audience than opera,” Cook said. “I rehearsed for two years on that style of singing and had three Louisville investors who wanted to back me so that I could devote full time to rehearsing, but I decided their payback percentage was too high and decided to drop the idea. “

Then came the brainstorm of reuniting the old guys to launch a new show. Cook said he got the idea while attending a family wedding, when a band from Atlanta played his music, the 1960s, ‘70s and 80s music, including some Motown.

“What I recall vividly is that all the Baby Boomer parents, uncles and aunts plus all the younger folks simply loved the music, and the dance floor stayed packed the entire evening,” he said.

Cook and drummer Bill May, a 4-term mayor of Frankfort, had played some big shows together in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I made my first call to him,” Cook said. “He expressed an interest in putting something together with me as long as we were talking about fellow musicians who were committed to rehearsing and getting it right.”

The Rock ‘N Roll Travelin’ Oldies Show Band was born.

In addition to May, Eaton and Rodgers, Nancy Cheak, not long ago retired as a music teacher at Shelby County Public Schools, is a background singer. Bobby Redding, bass guitarist, is from Franklin County but performed often in Shelby with a Beatles cover group called Apple. Keyboard player/saxophonist Keith McAliley of Bridgeport and backup singers Wanda Martin and Deanna Hampton of Louisville round out the group.

“Dave Rodgers our lead guitar player/vocalist has a great full sound with influences of the clean playing style of George Harrison to the soulful feel of James Burton,” Cook said. “Danny Eaton also has a very smooth, clean sound on guitar and like the rest of the group is a fine musician and singer. Dan is very even-tempered and very diplomatic, and I asked him to serve as the bandleader onstage.

“Nancy Cheak and I have sung together in several concerts as the opening act for national artists. We also have sung together on the Crusade for Children broadcast from the Kentucky Center for the Arts. One of our duets was ‘Somewhere Out There’ by Linda Ronstadt and Luther Ingram.

“Wanda Martin...she and I have also worked together on the Crusade for Children. Deanna Hampton does an awesome job and lights up the stage with her energy and enthusiasm.”

This new gig probably will last about five or six songs. Thursday is also Angela Cook’s birthday, and Cook said one of the first songs will be a favorite of hers from Roy Orbison. To follow will be songs from The Beach Boys, Elvis, Neil Diamond, The Box Tops and The Beatles. Familiar songs from a familiar voice.

And even if the drive from his home to Cardinal Stadium on Thursday night won’t be long, it will cover a lot of years and a lot of missed time. Cook said this will be the first time in 25 years Sara Beth and Meredith, both now married mothers, have heard him sing. It also completes the circle of life for the voice that emerged in high school.

“It's been over forty years since Dave Rodgers, Danny Eaton and I have played together for those Homecoming and Sadie Hawkins dances,” Cook said. “And you know, if only for a few moments, we're not in our sixties. We’re all eighteen again, Shelby County Rockets and Shelbyville Red Devils.”

 

 

Close encounters

Country artists Cook opened for in the 1970s, 1980s & 1990s:Jerry Lee Lewis, Dwight Yoakum, Waylon Jennings, George Jones,  Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Exile, Ricky Van Shelton, Michael Martin Murphy, Eddie Rabbitt, John Conlee, Confederate Railroad, Bobbie Gentry, Razzy Bailey, Billy Joe Royal, Steve Wariner, Patty Loveless, Tanya Tucker, The Whites, Del Reeves, Rodney Crowell, Pirates of the Mississippi, John Schneider, T. Graham Brown, Gary Morris and Highway 101 w/Paulette Carlson

Some of the rock music artists he has met: Ringo Starr,  Paul McCartney, John Entwhistle (The Who), Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad), Felix Caveliere' (The Rascals), Billy Preston, Peter Cetera, Al Jardine and Dennis Wilson (Beach Boys), John Fogerty and Stu Cook (Credence Clearwater Revival), B.J. Thomas, Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson.

Some of the country he has met:  Keith Whitley, K.T. Oslin, T.G. Sheppard, Alan Jackson, The Judds, Vince Gill, Gary Morris, Reba McEntire, Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Little Jimmy Dickens, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Charlie Daniels, Jeanne Pruett, Hank Snow, Johnny Lee, Lee Greenwood, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Larry Gatlin, The Oakridge Boys, Charlie Pride, Roseanne Cash, Marty Stuart, Restless Heart, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Garth Brooks, Lorrie Morgan, Buck Owens, John Anderson, Barbara Mandrell, Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart.