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Little Joe Cook turns 80 — five months late

An interview with Little Joe Cook, the Cantab Lounge’s 80-year-old singer celebrating his octogenarian status this Thursday, is as predictable as one with Korea’s Kim Jong Il. When the Framingham denizen’s feeling taciturn, he’ll sit you in front of his television, feed his VCR videotapes of other interviews, and grumble when you interrupt to ask a question. But when the five-foot-four fella’s feeling particularly loquacious, he’ll take a softball inquiry like, " What lessons have you learned in the last 80 years? " , toss back answers like, " Stay away from cigarettes, " and then run to left field with a tangent like, " I came from a poor family. We was so poor, my grandmother used to send me to school like a rainbow, wearing colored pants — red, green, blue pants — but they was always clean! "

But caprice is part of Cook’s charm. A one-hit wonder who scored a rock-and-roll Billboard hit in 1957 (see " Down at the Cantab, " News and Features, March 28), the Philly native has survived two strokes and a heart attack, thereby earning the right to be moody. So when the Phoenix phoned him at home to chat about his upcoming bash, Cook was — lucky for us — happy to talk.

Q: Are you going to sing at your party?

A: I don’t think so. On my birthday, I ain’t supposed to work!

Q: Your birthday was December 29. Why didn’t you have a party then?

A: Because it’s four days after Christmas and everybody’s broke. Even when I was small, my mother used to cheat me; she used to give me one present for both days. I used to cry because my cousins got two.

Q: What presents did you get for your 80th?

A: Hmm, I can’t remember. [To his 20-year-old son in the other room] Jo-Jo! What’d you buy me for my birthday last year? [To his wife] Joanne, what’d I get for my birthday? [Pause] Nobody remembers. [Someone yells in the background] My wife said she can’t remember because every time she turns around, it’s my birthday again.

Q: What do you want now as a belated present?

A: I would like to have a hit record, so I can go on the road again and make some money. [Giggles] Or a nice ring or a necklace.

Q: What’s the best thing about 80?

A: Living this long. I’m going to try to make 90. Mostly all of my friends passed away. God has left me here; He must’ve left me here to do something.... And I can remember [times like] 1935. I was born in an Italian neighborhood. [My neighbors] used to call me Little Joe. Like when they would say, " Hey, Little Joe, give me some dice so we can shoot crap on the corner. " We would play and the cops could never catch us. Know why? With their 1935 Fords, you could hear them a block away. They’d be chick-chick-chick-chick. We’d say, " Geez, here come the cops. " So we’d stop. And the cops would come and they’d be all staring, saying, " What are you boys doing? " We say, " Nothing, nuttin’. " Those were the good old days.

Q: What’s the worst thing about 80?

A: The worst thing about 80 is that you get introduced to the Rightus brothers. You know of the Rightus brothers?

Q: The Righteous Brothers?

A: You don’t know Arthur Rightus? Yes, you do. Arthur Rightus and Neur Rightus. You know, arthritis? That Arthur, he don’t care ’bout nobody. That’s the worst thing about being 80 — the Rightus brothers got me.

Little Joe Cook’s 80th-birthday celebration will be held on Thursday, May 29 at 8 p.m., in the Grand Ballroom of the Royal Sonesta Hotel, Five Cambridge Parkway, in Cambridge. Tickets are $10. Call (781) 485-0426.

Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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