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Albert Cooper's last big boogie

PUBLISHED: 16:18 06 November 2008 | UPDATED: 12:03 29 October 2010

Flashback - Norwich blues man Albert Cooper

Flashback - Norwich blues man Albert Cooper

Legendary Norwich blues man Albert Cooper will be waving a bittersweet farewell to hundreds of fans when he plays his last big concert on Saturday. Lorna Marsh spoke to him.

Norwich blues man Albert Cooper - last gig

Legendary Norwich blues man Albert Cooper will be waving a bittersweet farewell to hundreds of fans when he plays his last big concert on Saturday.

Lorna Marsh spoke to him.

Albert Cooper is his own worst critic.

He has been playing to packed audiences for five decades and has become a celebrity in his home county and beyond, performing with the likes of Norwich pub landlady legend Black Anna and entertaining George Melly.

He has won thousands of fans over the years and even had a book written about him.

But Albert is as nervous for his last concert as he was for his first and the hundreds in between - not eating or sleeping properly for the anticipation.

And it is partly because he has never understood why people want to watch him perform, while the reason for his retirement from scheduled performances is that the 75-year-old, who still has the energy of a 17-year-old, worries he will disappoint fans as he gets older.

“It is a question of people's expectations. I don't like being in the limelight because of those expectations and you can't keep getting better and better and better.

“There is a façade of confidence of course, once you get on stage you go into a bit of a cocoon if you like. But I don't really get why people come to see me.”

Yet flock they do, he is renowned for packing out every venue he plays despite his own doubts over his appeal that have been there from the beginning.

A poster promoting a gig in Norwich more than 30 years ago declared: “Only those who love me need attend.”

The place was packed.

Indeed he could have headed for the bright lights of London to seek fame there, but he stayed in Norwich where he was born in June 1933 to Albert senior and Alice Cooper of William Street.

His dad was a hairdresser but he had also been a song-and-dance man in the music halls, so there was music in the family.

Dad taught him a few songs around the house, but his musical education started at the age of eight when he joined the choir at St John's Roman Catholic Cathedral, where he met Father Anthony Roberts. A pupil at Willow Lane and then Heigham House, he was given time off school to have his voice trained by Father Roberts.

Albert, a lifelong fan of classical and sacred music, joined the Norwich Philharmonic Chorus.

His first public appearance came in December 1945 at the Hippodrome in St Giles, where he sang Christmas carols.

But his talent had to be put on ice when he was called up for National Service with the RAF. When he got back to Norwich in 1954 he found work at the old Fifty Shillings Tailors, John Collier.

Then one night changed his life as he walked home down Ber Street after choir practice and heard a voice that he would never forget - that of the formidable and hugely loved Black Anna.

“It was an amazing voice. I looked inside and there was this woman, dressed in black, standing on a box, singing,” he said.

Black Anna ran the Jolly Butchers when it was famous across the world. As Albert put it: “There was no one else like her.”

In 1954 his singing career was launched in the pub and people travelled from far and wide to listen to the double act of Anna and Albert.

He then formed one of the first skiffle groups in Norwich with Bernard Rudden, Dave Keeley and Vernon on the washboard.

As the other members turned to the upcoming rock and roll, Albert moved towards blues and jazz, but he is also a master of folk and calypso.

Over the decades he has been a part of so many groups, playing to audiences large and small, from smoky backstreet pubs to stately homes.

In the 1960s his performances with Black Anna overshadowed the likes of the Kinks, Manfred Mann and Acker Bilk at the festivals in Earlham Park.

On his decision to shun potential fame and fortune in London for staying in Norwich he said: “This is my home. I love the city and I love the people.”

In the 1960s he and his brother Tony opened their own folk and jazz club in a back room at the Mischief tavern - the Jacquard.

It later moved to its own premises in Magdalen Street. This was where the cool cats of the day would chill out to the likes of George Melly - he loved the club and the Coopers - Paul Simon, Tom Paxton, Ronnie Scott, Ralph McTell and the rest.

But the biggest star was Albert with his Blues and Boogie Band. But he now reckons his big gig days are over.

“I am still going to be playing around the Norwich and Norfolk pubs. I hope to perform at the Rumsey Wells with my son Chris but not any more concerts. This is it.

“The last one will be bittersweet but life in total is bittersweet.”

t The End Game Gig, celebrating 75 years, features Albert Cooper in concert with the Blues and Boogie band - Graham McGrotty, Steve Jinks, Chris Cooper and Robert Masters.

Graham played with the official Blues Brothers tours. This will be Steve's last gig after many years of service so he can concentrate on his new recording studio at Scratby.

Also performing will be Lowery plus Feature Clip and there will be a special spot, The Jacquard Club revisited, with guests and musicians from The Lost Levels.

t The gig is at Norwich Arts Centre, St Benedict's, on Saturday, November 8. Advance tickets are £7 or £8 on the door. Call 01603 660352 or log on to www.norwichartscentre.co.uk

t Albert has also just finished a jazz CD for release before Christmas called Songs For September.

t Music writer Kingsley Harris, who runs the East Anglian Music Archive and wrote the book Albert Cooper: A Chronicle of Norwich's King of the Blues, will have a stand at the gig selling the last few copies still available.

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