Tony Cook's beats spanned James Brown to early house
by David Ma
In 1972, Tony Cook was fifteen, playing drums with his buddies onstage at an event sponsored by local radio when James Brown joined them unannounced. Brown performed “Get on the Good Foot” as the awestruck teens played behind him in full swing. The chance run-in forever altered Tony’s life and what would become his long, deep career.
Tony tells it: “I ran into James a month later downtown as he and his wife were shopping. He recognized me and asked, ‘How old are you?’ I told him, ‘Fifteen,’ and he said, ‘Too young. But come see me when you get out of school and you got yourself a job.’ I laughed and told him I was going down to the music store. He then gave me twenty bucks and told me to buy myself some drumsticks.”
Brown kept his promise as Tony joined the J.B.’s some years later as their new drummer. And while musical trends in the 1970s forced setbacks and relocation, Tony’s adaptive ethos led him to newer work. He left for Europe as the ’70s closed, making early rap and house records by the 1980s. It was then that Tony put out “On the Floor (Rock-It),” a bouncy, synth-filled dance number now considered the “Granddaddy of All House Records.” He continued to record through the decades and even toured with Brown up until his passing in 2006.
Tony’s work continues to grab interest, evidenced by Stones Throw’s recent Back to Reality, an anthology of rare songs from 1982 to 1986. From a little funky drummer to a forward-thinking musician, Tony now looks back on his career.
When did your interest in music begin? What made you pick the drums?
When I was about twelve, I put a band together with a friend and his brother. My friend wanted to play the bass; his brother played the guitar, so I decided to play the drums. You must understand, Augusta, Georgia, was a music town back then, so learning your instrument wasn’t too difficult. I learned how to play professionally backing artists like Z. Z. Hill and Geater Davis.
It is said James Brown discovered you at a block party. Can you describe exactly what happened that day?
I was about fifteen, and the year was 1972. My group, the Young Breeds Band, was hired to perform at the block party show, and James came down to the gig. “Get on the Good Foot” was just released, and we didn’t know he was going to perform with us. So he arrived onstage, called for the song, and we grooved him. [laughs]
How was it getting to know someone as large as James?
It took a while to learn him and he to learn me. Everyone that knew James knew him differently; I first saw him as my boss, then a friend, and then a good friend. There were times I was not in the band but was still in the organization. You see, once James got use to you, he’d always call you back for something. After I moved to Europe, he made a deal with me to join him every time he toured Europe.
What is it about the James you knew that the world at large might not know?
Of course the world new him as a dancer and a singer, but he also played around with different instruments. Many do not know this, but personally I think his best side instrument was keyboard.
You joined the J.B.’s around ’76. This was a different era, as the band was going through some drastic retooling. What was done differently in regards to the music?
The beginning of 1976, James was reforming the J.B.’s and hired me as the new drummer. Disco became a problem for James. Instead of doing mostly concert halls, coliseums, and stadiums, we began playing mostly clubs. To compete with the “disco machine,” as he called it, we changed the beat on most songs from funk to disco, speeding up the time as well. That’s why the song “Get Up Offa That Thing” was born.
What were your thoughts on disco? How did it affect your work at the time as labels moved away from funk?
I was okay with disco. I liked some Donna Summer’s songs, but as a musician it changed the club scene, so I had to adapt.
What made you decide to move to London? How was the music scene and industry different there as compared to the U.S.?
In 1979, I was in London playing at the Venue Theatre with Brown. We were just on tour. Boney M. and Precious Wilson came to the show. Wilson’s manager, Jim Lindsay, got in touch with me late December, asking me to move to Germany to record with Precious. He got with Frank Farian and brought us over [in] early February 1980. After we arrived, I went to East Germany and performed with Boney M. too. The late, great Bobby Farrell was still with Boney M. at the time. Later that year, I move to England.
Once in London, you signed to Osceola Records. What about them attracted you?
After I moved to England, a good friend of mine, Cliff White, introduced me to a great guy, Jimmy Thomas. He was trying to get his label going and wanted to turn me into more of a front man.
Which led to your band Tony Cook and the Party People. What was your intention musically? Who were some of the musicians?
The first single after signing with Osceola was a track titled “Party People.” I decided to name the group Tony Cook and the Party People after we cut that song. The Party People originally was Roy Hamilton, Yasmin James, and Fiona Walsh. Time to time, I would return to the States for other projects, so I was able to use different musicians, like Vernon Cheely and Vanessa Jean. It was a lot of fun. [laughs]
Your deal with the Half Moon label led to an early rap record, “Do What You Wanna Do.”
Osceola did a deal with Half Moon for a joint single called “Do What You Wanna Do,” which turned into a rap song, released in 1982. It just happened by accident and ended up sounding like it did. I liked rap music then, but it wasn’t our immediate intention.
This led to one of your most-known songs, “On the Floor.” What were you trying to accomplish with the record’s sound.
In ’83, I signed directly with Half Moon, and they released “On the Floor (Rock-It)” in February of the following year. “On the Floor (Rock-It)” was intended to be a rap song after the success of “Do What You Wanna Do” but was turned into a house record instead. [laughs]
It’s now labeled as “the Granddaddy of all House Records.” What do you think of that?
I am deeply honored.
By choice or not, you had dabbled with funk, disco, rap, and house at this point. Talk about the Back to Reality selections and what went into recordings. What are all of the genres you feel are represented in those sessions?
As you know, Back to Reality is a compilation of tracks from all kinds of projects I produced between 1982 and 1986. Some of the genres indeed are rap, dance, house, funk, and even boogie.
What were your thoughts on rap music that was emerging at the time? You still listen to rap these days?
Rap was more about rhyme back then. It was less about getting on the dance floor. Nowadays, it also seems to be more aggressive.
So what are your days like now?
I’m just keeping busy working on different projects still.
What drummers through the years have you been fans of?
Good question. Tony Williams and Max Roach, definitely.
If you don’t mind me asking, what were you doing when you found out about James’s passing?
I was planning to leave the next day to tour with James. His office called me late Christmas Eve and left me a message that he was in the hospital so the tour would be delayed for a few days. Then they called me back and left another message saying he was dead. I actually didn’t hear the message and found out when my granddaughter heard about it on the news Christmas morning. I checked my messages and found out for sure. I was shocked; I knew he was sick, but I wasn’t ready for that.
What was the funeral like?
I was there and played. The band and I kicked off James’s homecoming with “Soul Power.”
What a career you’ve had, drumming for the J.B.’s and blurring so many genres early on. What do you want your legacy to be when young cats hear your work?
I had not really thought about this. But I do think my legacy is still being made and is ongoing. Thank you for enjoying my music.
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