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ALUMNI ROLL CALL: COOPER TWINS STILL MAKING MARK IN MUSIC

The CooperSonics Trio: Jim and John Perform with  their dad Bert CooperGrowing up in hard-times Oklahoma, Bert Cooper found an unbreakable joy in his unpresuming acoustic guitar.

Until he traded it for a pig.

In the desperate times of the Great Depression, Mr. Cooper realized his family needed food more than he wanted that guitar.

But his love of music never wavered.

Under a blazing sun in the Oklahoma cotton fields, Mr. Cooper sang to himself as he picked. At home, he never was far from the family radio, especially when it was time for the Grand 'Ol Opry.

And just as his guitar had, an old piano captured Mr. Cooper’s fancy, and he would often plink out tunes. 

As young boys growing up on the South Side of Pueblo, twins Jim and John would sit captivated as their father performed such standards as ‘Red River Valley’ and ‘Deep Ellum Blues’ on a Stella Spanish guitar he picked up at a pawn shop.

The boys’ mother, tragically, had passed away in 1961 following open-heart surgery, leaving Mr. Cooper and a maternal grandmother to raise the twins.

"Though he had a full-time job and family to raise on his own, Dad still enjoyed playing music," Jim Cooper said. "He used to sing in a barbershop quartet, as well as the church choir.”

Their curiosity in the Stella adequately piqued, Jim and John were eventually allowed to strum the guitar.

Sensing their interest, Mr. Cooper showed his sons some guitar basics while pledging to purchase for them an electric guitar from Gibson's Discount Center.

"Actually, he put it on layaway, with the condition it would become ours if we got good grades," John Cooper explained.

As it turned out, the brothers' musical destiny was nearly derailed: not by poor marks but by an ill-advised “fruit fight.”

"During the layaway period, we and some friends 'accidentally' got into a plum fight inside the house," Jim Cooper admitted. "Our Dad threatened to not buy the guitar unless we did a thorough job of cleaning up the plum-stained walls, floor and furniture.

"Needless to say, we wanted that guitar so badly that we cleaned the whole house from top to bottom, spic and span, in short order."

And with that, a musical career that eventually took the Cooper Brothers from Pueblo to the Sunset Strip – and back, several times – was set in motion.

A mainstay on the local and regional music scene for decades, Pitts Middle School and 1973 South High School graduates Jim and John Cooper continue to captivate listeners with a unique twin-guitar, dual harmony and matching attire nostalgia act centered around a diverse cornucopia of songs that served as the soundtrack to many a life.

The Beatles. Three Dog Night. Elvis Presley. Creedence Clearwater Revival. The Eagles. Neil Diamond. The Grass Roots. Tony Orlando and Dawn. Tennessee Ernie Ford. Kool and the Gang. Roy Orbison. Herman’s Hermits.

That’s just a sampling of the artists whose classic hits are sprinkled with the special magic that can only be found emanating from the synchronistic harmony of twin brothers.

From the Chile and Frijoles Fest to restaurant patios to private parties, the CooperSonics have become an indelible part of the fabric of the Pueblo and state musical landscape.

It was at Pitts Middle School that the Coopers’ formal music training, in the form of trumpet and cornet instruction, began, continuing at South High School, where the brothers were active in school bands.

“At South, we were mainly focused on playing cornet, in the marching band, concert band and pep band,” said Jim. “I think John was a little better than I was, as he was a couple of chairs ahead.”

From South Band Director Bill Thomas, the Coopers were gifted with important tips that would serve them well throughout their career.

“He taught us a lot about technique,” Jim said. “He would tell the whole band, ‘When you take a breath, don’t everybody do it at the same time, or else everything stops. Stagger your breaths.’

“And we still follow that advice when we sing.” High School photos of Jim and John Cooper

While Colts, the brothers made the move from school band to garage band, with the assistance of school mates Jeff Glaubensklee (drums) and Brenda Satterlee (vocals and tambourine.)

“It was mainly rehearsals, learning songs,” said John. “We had a couple of little gigs at parties and things like that.”

In 1975, the informality of that little combo gave way to a more polished act, Chance, with another Colt, bassist Karl Harvey, replacing Brenda Satterlee in the lineup.

With a solid work ethic reflective of their father’s time in the Oklahoma cotton fields and later the steel mill, the Coopers – now starting to sport long hair and hip outfits –  booked Chance at any venue willing to pay.

From Lamar to Canon City and all points in between, Chance began to make a name in the scene.

In what surely ranks as one of the most unusual “gigs” of all time, Chance was encouraged by a teacher at South to audition for local funeral home operator T.G. McCarthy, who at the time had connections in Hollywood that potentially could have benefited the band.

“So the whole band set up right there in the chapel and played our rock and roll songs,” John said. “Nothing came of it, so I’m really not sure what Mr. McCarthy thought of us.”

To complement the cover songs that comprised the brunt of the band’s set list, Chance wrote and recorded two original compositions: “Harbor Nights” and “Magic Eyes.”

At the then princely sum of $1,000, the band pressed 1,000 copies of the 45 single and set out to get the discs in the hands of local “movers and shakers.”

In an early lesson about the competitive nature of the business, Chance was defeated in a “Battle of the New Bands” contest hosted by local radio station KDZA.

“It was ‘Magic Eyes’ against Paul Davis’ ‘Sweet Life,’” John Cooper explained. 

With the listening public – including an army of Chance supporters – serving as the “jukebox jury,” the Coopers were dismayed when “Sweet Life” came out on top.

Davis’ song, by the way, went on to become a Top 20 national hit and spent five months on the charts.

With their ambitious sights moving beyond Pueblo, the Coopers sent a copy of the 45 record, along with a band photo and bio, to nearly every major record label and publishing executive in the country.

It was a painstaking effort that, unfortunately, produced nothing more than a voluminous pile of rejection letters that continues to serve as a painful reminder of just how difficult it is to get a foot in the industry door.

“At least Paul McCartney’s publishing company was very cordial in their response — they said Paul was too busy touring with Wings to take on any new projects, and wished us the best of luck,” Jim said.

“I think we’re probably the most rejected band in history,” added John.

With the realization that the industry was never going to come to them, the Coopers made the youthfully bold decision to venture west to the heart of the action: Los Angeles and the thriving Sunset Strip music scene.

It was 1978, and the era of New Wave and power pop -- in the form of The Knack, The Plimsouls, the Go-Gos and Oingo Boingo – was gaining traction.

"When we decided to take our music to a more professional level in California, our Dad wholeheartedly supported us morally and financially, buying us brand new guitars and our first PA system," John Cooper said. "But he also cautioned us about the possible pitfalls and rigors of becoming professional entertainers."

And rigorous it was. 

With countless bands working night and day to get their name out there, Chance entered the fray with that same blue-collar work ethic forged in their hometown of Pueblo.

But after three months in the heart, and heat, of the concrete jungle – and plenty of lessons learned – Chance returned to Pueblo to recharge and plan the next move.

“I guess we grew homesick and were somewhat disillusioned by the record business in general,” Jim Cooper said. “During that first stay we did manage to make some important connections in the industry, and auditioned for The Gong Show. We got gonged after the audition because they said we were too serious and not funny enough for the show.”

Back in Pueblo, Chance was given the opportunity to open for Robert John at the 1979 Colorado State Fair. John at the time was riding high with a Top 10 hit, “Sad Eyes.” 

The experience served as an impetus to “get back in the ring,” and once again, the Coopers and their bandmates got their motors runnin’ and headed out to the highway.

For a time, it was a case of back and forth between L.A. and Pueblo, with the Coopers finally deciding to make Hollywood their “home” in 1982.

It was a unique time in the business, as the burgeoning “hair metal” scene that produced acts such as Motley Crue and Poison was taking over the Strip.

With the band rechristened Calculated Risk, the four South alumni got down to business: writing songs, making demonstration recordings, gigging throughout the region, and networking and schmoozing with anyone who even looked like he or she might be in the business.

It was, in every aspect, an adventure.

The Coopers left few stones unturned in hopes of getting that much needed big break. The brothers weren’t above driving through the parking lot of Capitol Records and dropping 45 discs into any luxury automobile with its convertible top down.

Along Sunset Boulevard, if a Rolls Royce or similar high-end automobile happened to pull up next to them at a red light, the brothers would make sure that the vehicle didn’t leave without a copy of “Harbor Nights” and “Magic Eyes.”

“We were just hoping it was someone in the industry,” John said.

The brothers also made it a point to hang out outside the entrances of record companies and studios, discs in hand, in hopes of getting one into the right hands.

When the legendary Paul Simon exited one such building, the brothers – 45 record in hand – froze and simply stared, which led Mr. Simon to offer an awkward wave before shuffling off.

“We also tried to give soul star Isaac Hayes a record, but he just said, ‘Nope’ and walked away,” John noted.

While working in a mailroom, Jim learned that one of his co-workers was the father of soul star Chaka Khan.

“Of course, I gave him a 45 to give to Chaka,” Jim said. “He later told me that Chaka loved our music.”

To keep the Calculated Risk ship afloat, the Coopers took full-time day jobs, both utilizing business degrees earned at what was then the University of Southern Colorado.

While John worked in the accounting department of Screen Gems/EMI Music, the publishing division of Capitol Records, Jim secured employment at Executive Life Insurance Company.

Through John’s job in the Capitol Building, the twins managed to brush shoulders with giants in the industry, including Bob Seger, members of Journey, and the late Tommy Boyce, one of half of the celebrated songwriting team of Boyce and Hart.

The Coopers have a wealth of intriguing stories related to these encounters, including Bob Seger dancing to his own “Old Time Rock and Roll,” a drink in each hand, surrounded by a host of female admirers.

At another party, John was introduced to Neil Schon and Jonathan Cain of Journey, at the time perhaps the nation’s hottest act.

“I told them I worked for Capitol and had just cut some royalty checks for them, which amounted to about $130,000,” John explained. “And they said it would be nice to get that ‘pocket change.’”

As Screen Gems was the working home of Tommy Boyce, the legendary songwriter offered John a nifty bit of songwriting advice: peruse women’s magazines for potential song titles.

When Jim did as instructed, selecting “When Love has Left a Marriage,” Tommy turned the selected phrase into a progression of piano chords with a basic melody.

“He told me, ‘There it is: it’s yours,’ Jim said, adding that the completed song never quite materialized into a “hit.”

In a Sunset Strip nightclub, the brothers had the good fortune of meeting Fleetwood Mac vocalist Stevie Nicks, who after speaking with the brothers and learning of their plight, handed over the phone number to her studio.

“We thought it was a joke,” Jim said. “But we called it and it was actually Fleetwood Mac’s studio.”

“But then one of our friends, who was also from Pueblo and trying to make it in music, crumpled up the number and threw it away, because he didn’t believe us,” John added. “So that was the end of that.”

In a particularly amusing scene on the Sunset Strip, the brothers were walking along wearing matching shiny silk jackets with the Capitol Records logo, secured by John though his employer.

“Every struggling musician on the Strip thought we worked for Capitol Records,” John said. “We had all these guys coming up to us, telling us about their band and inviting us to come see them play.

“So we just played along and said, ‘OK, sure. What club is it? We’ll see if we can make it.’”

There were more substantial connections made. The music of Calculated Risk came to the attention of a number of high-profile producers such as Paul Rothchild, the man behind the classic Doors’ records, and Kim Fowley, who launched the career of The Runaways and wrote a host of hits.

Unfortunately, it always seemed to be a case of bad timing or other circumstances that prevented the songs of Calculated Risk from reaching a wider audience.

Understanding the difficulties his sons were experiencing, Bert Cooper never hesitated to send a check for rent "and other starving artist expenses," in Jim Cooper's words. 

"He also would make a couple trips a year to L.A. to support us: listening to us practice, attending live performances and offering moral and emotional support."

After seven hard years of beating the pavement, slogging it out in nightclubs classy and dingy, and the incessant toll of “don’t call us, we’ll call you,” the Coopers came to the hard-to-swallow realization that the stars were never going to align for them, at least in L.A.

Calculated Risk broke up in 1996, and the brothers returned to their childhood home on the South Side.

Finding employment at the Convergys call center, the brothers continued their musical journey, first as part of a trio and then downsizing into a duo that came to be known as the CooperSonics.

As bookings became more frequent, the Coopers left Convergys to serve as substitute teachers in District 60: a role that continues to this day.

In his 90s, and until his passing at the age of 96, Bert Cooper became part of the CooperSonics act, performing alongside the boys he showed rudimentary guitar phrasings to decades before. 

As a third CooperSonic, Mr. Cooper was a hoot and a highlight, regularly joining the duo for such numbers as Mac Davis' "It's Hard to Be Humble" — which evolved into his signature song — and staples such as "Ring of Fire," "King of the Road" and "Blueberry Hill."

“Before he passed away, our dad was able to add ‘rock star’ to a musical resume that included ‘inspiration,’ ‘biggest supporter,’ ‘promoter,’ ‘sound advisor’ and ‘roadie/tech,’” the brothers said.

In a career highlight for all involved, Bert was able to perform with his sons at a South High School homecoming assembly.

There, Bert’s rendition of "Ring of Fire" before a crowd of 1,000-plus youngsters was rewarded with a standing ovation.

The patriarch of the family was later made an honorary member of the South Class of 1973, which is slated for its 50th reunion next year.

And you can be sure who the house band is going to be for that momentous occasion.

To learn more about the CooperSonics, or to book a gig, the twins can be contacted through the band's Facebook page: www.facebook.com/thecoopersonics