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A heart-breaking story of a childhood stolen

A heart-breaking story of a childhood stolen

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Continued from Last Week

The fourth part of a series written by Desmond Allen, first published in The Observer, Jamaica, last Christmas.

Grub Cooper: Out of adversity a musical genius is born Volume 2

But now, not wanting to be at Excelsior, Grub took note of the fact that the Jamaica School of Agriculture (JSA) had just opened and he set his heart on going there. At that time too, the Jamaica School Certificate (JSC) Examination had just been introduced and he was among the first to sit the exam. He sat and passed five subjects, with two distinctions. He demolished the entrance exam and was accepted at the School of Agriculture.{{more}}

Prior to that, elder brother Conroy had himself got involved in a band called Bobby Atken and the Carib Beats. He moved from there to the Pacesetters Band managed by a certain Abe Dabdoub, now the attorney and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) MP. Conroy also played with Tommy McCook and the Supersonics and Lyn Tait and the Jets. Grub used to accompany Conroy to his gigs and would sometimes be asked to play the melodica. But that was not an accepted instrument for the band and he tried to learn other instruments.

The Jamaica School of Agriculture was the right place for Asley Beresford ‘Grub” Cooper and only fate could have placed him there. The school had a full set of brand new instruments and accompanying equipment for a modern band. In his first year there, Grub went to Owen Dawkins who was in charge and told him he could play some instruments and wanted to learn others, would he teach him? Dawkins let him try out the base guitar but his fingers were too tender and he found it painful. He next tried the tenosax. Dawkins showed Grub one scale and told him to work out the rest for himself. He did!

Desi Young, Ernie Ranglin et al

Not long after, Grub formed a band with John Allen on drums, Trevor Coombs on guitar, Sivia Waite on vocals, Bradshaw Taylor on keyboards and one Desi Young – eventually to become president of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians – on lead vocals. Grub was band leader and played the saxophone. “I was also fascinated with the drums and used to spend my lunch time trying to learn the drums,” he recalls. As Grub sneaked away to the band room each lunchtime, someone was watching.

It had come to the attention of the JSA principal, Granville Gayle that there was this former child prodigy in his school. Despite being visually impaired, he could play several instruments and was particularly brilliant on drums. Gayle was planning a lavish party and decided he would impress his friends by having this student play live music for them alongside some big name musicians. He also decided to choose the band members himself: Ernest ‘Ernie’ Ranglin on guitar, Mike Thompson Jr on the organ, Owen Dawkins on base guitar and Grub Cooper on drums!

When Gayle called Grub into his office and told him of his plans, the young musician was flabbergasted. The guests for the party were Gayle’s upscale friends and he would be playing with the likes of an Ernie Ranglin. How could he satisfy such an august bunch? “I was scared stiff and I was petrified,” Grub confesses. “I am out of that league,” he protested to the principal. But Gayle waved off his doubts and the matter was settled. He would play. At rehearsals, he timidly asked Ranglin how he was doing and the maestro told him he was doing well despite being so young. That was a confidence booster and he went on to give the performance of his young life.

Sing-Out Jamaica

Conroy, in the meantime, had become cast director of the popular Sing-Out Jamaica programme that had been an off-shoot of the moral rearmament movement from the United States. He used to take his little brother along and at one of the Sing-Out Jamaica events, introduced him as a “grub”. The name stuck with him until he decided to adopt it, hence the name Grub Cooper. He remembers an unfavourable incident at Harbour View when Conroy asked him to play the drums and he kept missing. Some young people at the concert found the whole thing amusing and laughed loudly each time he missed the drum. Only now can Grub laugh too.

Back at the School of Agriculture, trouble was brewing. It was towards the end of Grub’s first year. The second and third-year students decided they needed better living conditions at the school based at Twickenham Park, near Spanish Town. They invited a black power activist then at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona to organise a demonstration for them. The activist was none other than Arnold ‘Scree’ Bertram, later to become a minister in the Michael Manley government of the 1970s.

Frankie Campbell arrives

At the beginning of the second year in 1968, Grub, now 20, was invited by Conroy to join him at the Bronco Club owned by Eddie Knight at Union Square, Cross Roads. The vacancy was created when Boris Gardner who used to play there moved to the Courtleigh Hotel. When Conroy took the gig, he did not have a band. So he called up Frankie Campbell, a dynamic base guitarist and the current manager, and said let us form a band. They could only play two tunes – Napoleon and the Last Date. But at the audition, Knight said they could start immediately – that is, the same night. Not wanting to tell Knight they only knew those two tunes, Conroy quickly came up with an excuse that they had a previous engagement that night. The club owner said okay, they could start the following night.

“We spent all of the next day putting together a repertoire. But we played four nights a week and earned good money,” says Grub. Yet, it was not easy for him. He tried vocals but found that his voice quality was off although the reggae sound was better. He was extremely shy and had to sip rum before taking the stage. Sometimes when he was singing his drum playing would be off and vice versa. After some months, he got both right. There are few musicians who will agree to do both but today, Grub stands apart as both a drummer and vocalist par excellence. “It is tough mentally demanding and I don’t recommend it to any one,” he says.

Expelled from JSA

Grub was also finding it difficult to balance playing in the band at nights and attending classes the next day. Soon he was missing the early classes and his grades were suffering. He also believed that some in the school administration did not like that he was earning good money. “They took it upon their head to fight me out.” He was suspended from botany, chemistry and zoology classes. Later, the farm practices lecturer chased him out of his class. On that occasion they came close to exchanging blows. It did not help that Grub had joined an earlier demonstration calling for the removal of the principal whom the students thought was too oppressive. The school was closed for two months and in the end the principal was transferred to the World Bank, he later learnt.

At the beginning of June, the last month of the school year, he was handed a letter from the board dismissing him from the school with immediate effect. This was 1969. Board member, the famed T P Lecky pleaded with the board to at least let him finish his exams, but to no avail. Seething with anger as he gathered his things to leave, Grub’s parting shot to some teachers was that they had not heard the last of him. “Remember this, I am going to be bigger than all of you!” he snapped. At that moment, he vowed in his heart that to prove them all wrong, he would not fail at anything he did…never. But even if he had not thought it, the music had at last devoured Grub Cooper. From now on it was him and the music.

Meet thehellabulous Five

Leaving the Bronco Club, the band played the newly built Hotel Kingston at 50 Half-Way-Tree Road where the School of Nursing is now located. By then the group had some new additions in Dobbie Dobson on lead vocals, Junior Bailey on guitar and, occasionally, Peter Scarlett on vocals. Up to that time, the band had no formal name. When they were invited to play at a fashion show at the Hotel Kingston’s poolside, the emcee, Bobby Babcock, brother to the RJR disc jockey, Charlie Babcock, insisted he could not introduce them merely as the “Resident Band”. He promised to come up with something by showtime.

“Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the Fabulous Five,” Babcock in his hyped up style announced to the fashion show. After that, ads were placed in the newspaper announcing the band as “The Fabulous Five”. Band leader Conroy did not like the name and proposed “The Commandos” as an alternative. But when the ads kept saying “The Fabulous Five”, the “Commandos” suggestion died a natural death and “Fabulous Five”, affectionately shortened to “Fab Five”, was born. Dobbie Dobson gave way to Peter Scarlett on lead vocals.

The Fab Five sound took off and before long they were off to then West Germany on their first overseas engagement. Harold Huber, a German promoter wanted to push reggae in Munich. For that trip Barry Sadler, a saxophonist out of Montego Bay and Joe McCormack, the trombonist who used to play with the extraordinary Sonny Bradshaw, were brought in to the band. As back-up vocals, Marcia Griffiths was added, along with two dancers – L’Antoinette Stines and Marjorie Salmon. Huber introduced the band as “The Reggaes” and Grub contends that they were, in reality, the first group to take Jamaica’s indigenous reggae music, spawned in the sprawling slums of West Kingston, to majestic Europe.

• More next week.

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