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Down at the Cantab
In 1957, Little Joe Cook hit the Top 40 with the doo-wop single ‘Peanuts.’ Forty-six years, two wives, two strokes, and one heart attack later, he’s still singing the same ol’ song.

Joe Cook gets mad when people call him a fad. Doo-wop devotee Phil Groia called him that in the 1991 liner notes of Little Joe Cook & the Thrillers Meet the Schoolboys (Sony Music Collectables). Cook, who likes to boast that his squeaky-trumpet shrill " made me famous all over the world, " is not a fad. Just look at the embossed script on his glinting, gold-leaf business card. Or the sign bearing his glossy headshot outside the Cantab Lounge, the Central Square watering hole where the 80-year-old warbles two nights a week. They both read: LEGENDARY LITTLE JOE COOK.

That’s right, Little Joe Cook is Legendary — with a capital " L. " Back in the ’50s, he fronted a rock-and-roll vocal group called Little Joe & the Thrillers. In 1957, their signature single, the doo-bee-doo-wah ditty " Peanuts, " rode the Billboard charts for 15 weeks, peaking at 23. That same year, he bopped on stage at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater and hoofed a self-choreographed, toe-tapping shuffle called " The Slop " on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand; he also appeared at New York’s Paramount Theater for an Alan Freed show and flitted around the country billed with the likes of B.B. King, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Lionel Hampton. Simon & Garfunkel’s first paid gig was opening for Little Joe Cook & the Thrillers in New Haven, Connecticut.

Nearly half a century later, Cook recalls these triumphs repeatedly in conversation, as if his legendary status — albeit a self-appointed one, since the shimmering business card and photo caption are his own design — consists entirely of 45-year-old feats. But despite his insistence on reliving those faded nights of bright lights and grand finales, Cook’s post- " Peanuts " period hasn’t been all epilogue. Rather, those ephemeral days of national radio play are, in many ways, the prologue to Cook’s story.

‘Down at the Cantab’

The Cantab Lounge isn’t a place you’d take your 80-year-old grandmother — unless grandma likes the smell of booze, exudes the soul of Aretha Franklin, and doesn’t mind the occasional shady man asking her to dance. It’s inclusive, unrefined, and random. On weekend nights, the joint is rollicking with college students and post-grad professionals, birthday parties and liquid-courage displays. During the daytime, it’s a racially diverse dive of hard-boiled barflies, sunken-cheeked smokers, and blaring television screens. Tiffany-style Michelob Light lamps hang from the ceiling; a white clock behind the bar tells time, but its numbers are clustered in a shriveled heap around the six, as though passed out, appearing beneath the words WHO CARES? Nearby, a framed painting of a naked woman’s backside hangs, her peach-like bum mooning the customers.

This is the second home of Little Joe Cook, a/k/a the Nut Man, an old-school octogenarian who praises God, hot nuts, and hot women. A soul singer with arthritic knees, stubby bowlegs, and dyed hair, Cook has been performing here intermittently with the Thrillers, his four-piece backing band, for nearly 25 years. Every Friday and Saturday, he plods to the microphone at 10:20 p.m. Usually, he’s outfitted in a dapper jacket and turtleneck, and gilded with a golden peanut-shaped ring and matching necklace.

" When most people think of the Cantab, they think of Joe, " says Cantab owner Richard Fitzgerald. " The two go together. "

Even in his absence, Cook’s influence is palpable. On one wall, there’s a cartoon-y mural of a toothy peanut surrounded by a silhouetted quartet of instrument-playing goobers. The staff’s green golf shirts read CANTAB LOUNGE/THAT’S WHERE IT’S AT, a line borrowed from Cook’s boogie tune " Down at the Cantab. " Even the regulars mention him when he’s not around: on a recent Thursday afternoon, as updates about the Rhode Island nightclub fire spill from the television, a pudgy, mustachioed guy mutters to no one in particular, " They better leave us alone here. Joe Cook of all people is going to have pyrotechnics? I don’t think so. "

Cook isn’t a pyrotechnics kind of performer — some nights, he and the Thrillers can barely run the sound system — and the closest his live show gets to special effects is when an unidentified chunk falls from the ceiling and thumps long-time guitarist Candido Delgado on the head. And for the most part, Cook’s recital seems dictated by a script rather than a set list. Lately, he begins with " This Little Light of Mine, " a hymn most Christian kids learn at vacation Bible school. He tells the crowd that God healed him from his 2001 stroke and asks everyone to give God a nice round of applause. Then he segues into " Hot Nuts, " a song in which he hobbles around the dance floor, points to men seated at nearby tables, and says things like, " See that fella dressed in brown? He’s got the biggest nuts in town. " The audience laughs when he does this — pretty girls especially, who tend go " Woooooh! " when they hear Cook talking about nuts.

Women love Little Joe. They kiss him. Some press their lips against his fingertips; others nuzzle against him for snapshots. More than a decade ago, a group of female fans made up T-shirts and called themselves the " Beauty Shop Girls, " a reference to Cook’s sexy-siren serenade " Lady from the Beauty Shop. " During one recent late-night break, Cook ambled out of the Cantab’s bathroom and three blond girls standing by the jukebox cheered, waved, and high-fived him.

" I was told that I had to check out Little Joe Cook before he died, " says 25-year-old Evan Monsky, a Philadelphia transplant who moved to Brighton six months ago and went to see Cook after hearing about him through a friend. " This kind of reminds me of a bar mitzvah. "

Cook & the Thrillers do perform at weddings, graduation parties, and birthday bashes. And with the exception of fervent sax player Reggie Grant, the Thrillers do sound somewhat like a wedding band: traditional, comfortable, rote, and unmoved. The drummer, Shane O'Donohoe, a dead ringer for every high-school social-studies teacher you ever had, occasionally looks like he’s napping. And their covers are dance classics with family-function pasts: Leo Sayers’ " You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’, " Marvin Gaye’s " What’s Going On. "

But Cook’s on-stage charm wins audiences. " I love seeing him, " says Cambridge city councilor Anthony Galluccio, a long-time friend of Cook who designated an intersection beside the Cantab " Little Joe Cook Square " in 1999, when he was mayor of Cambridge. " You know what songs he’ll be playing when you walk in, you know how he’s going to act, and you always know how you’re going to feel when you leave. "

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Issue Date: March 27 - April 3, 2003
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