This article appears in our July/August 2015 “British Issue,” now available on newsstands.
Twenty years ago, a jovial, affable gent offered me the following gem of tunesmithian wisdom: “There’s nothing wrong with you a hit song can’t fix.” Roger Cook, the sole Brit anointed to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, knows from experience, as he celebrates half a century of composing hit songs.
“My father could play anything he could put his hands on,” Cook explains. As a boy, Roger learned vocal harmonies from family sing-alongs and church choir. The youngster evidently possessed a remarkable reserve of self-confidence. In fact, his impressive success and longevity seems to be rooted in a series of self-imposed dares …
When Roger asked if he could join his big brother’s harmonica band, the answer was, “But you don’t know how to play.” “I’ll learn,” the younger sib responded with punkish defiance.
“And I did,” he muses. “At 15, I was onstage – in a harmonica band!” Two years later, when his doo-wop group’s guitarist brought in an original composition, Roger fumed enviously, “Why can’t I write a song? I mean, how hard can it be?” So, he did.
Serendipity intervened when Cook met another Roger – surname, Greenaway. Cook and Greenaway penned “You’ve Got Your Troubles, I’ve Got Mine” for their mid-’60s combo, The Kestrels. Soon after cutting a demo for London-based Mills Music, the fledgling songwriting partners were summoned by Beatles producer George Martin, who expressed his desire to produce the record. The pair exited Martin’s office “… flying on air.” Martin, however, was tied up completing a little LP called Rubber Soul. During the months The Kestrels waited for Martin to take them into the studio, The Fortunes’ version of “Troubles” hit the airwaves. Cook recollects his first songwriting success as a mixed blessing: “We saw our song going up the charts all over the world. But it could have been our first hit as artists.” Then, with droll hindsight, he notes, “Still, it changed my life – as your first hit does.”
Post-Kestrels, Cook and Greenaway became in-demand session vocalists. When friend Elton John began making records, he called the two Rogers in to harmonize. These sessions led to meeting songstress Madeline Bell. Together, the trio became the vocal section for Blue Mink, for whom Cook and Greenaway penned the smash racial harmony anthem, “Melting Pot.” Meanwhile, the prolific duo was enjoying an extraordinary decade-long run, issuing such classics as “This Diamond Ring,” “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feelin’ Again,” “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress,” and their ginormous global standard, “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing.” That song, which originated as a jingle in a 1971 Coca-Cola ad campaign, was also featured in the final scene of the Mad Men series finale.
The break-up of Blue Mink and a falling out with Greenaway sent Cook across the pond in search of fresh challenges. However, neither New York nor L.A seemed remotely ideal for settling down and raising a family. Then, someone suggested he give Nashville a try. Although skeptical, on his first visit, Cook fell in love with Music City. It wouldn’t be long before Nashville would return the affection. The year was 1975. The love affair has been going on now for 40 years.
Cook’s main axe for composition is the uke. In England, he’d often been ridiculed for the toy-like instrument and its “Tiny Tim” stigma. In Nashville, however, he found himself invited to guitar pulls with some of the town’s top pickers, who admired his ukulele style. “It’s a friendly little thing,” Roger observes, affectionately. “You don’t get calluses on your fingers. You can take it anywhere. And you can paddle a canoe with it.”
As a “title-first” writer, when an intriguing phrase comes up in conversation or leaps from the pages of a magazine, Cook exclaims, “That’s a song!” He chuckles, “May the bird of paradise fly up yer nose, ya know.” This concept-centric approach made him an ideal fit for Music Row. Cook has always, however, wielded a novel lyrical slant, which he displays boldly in “I Believe In You” (co-written with Sam Hogin): “I don’t believe virginity is as common as it used to be …” Not many Music Row tunesmiths would dare to make that statement – probably one reason why the song hit #1 for Don Williams in 1980.
When asked what’s changed over his four decades in Music City, Cook observes, “The skyline.” Over his lengthy reign as one of the world’s elite tunesmiths, he’s seen plenty of musical fashions come and go. “If I could write Bro Country, I probably would,” he reflects. “But it’s alien to me. I’m just happy there are some guys out there making a really good living writing those kinds of songs – cuz it’s a tough business.” So, he puts ever-shifting musical tides aside … “I mean, I can still call up my buddies, whether it’s Guy Clark or John Prine, and fix up to go writing – and then go fishing after, or play golf.”
The Roger Cook songwriting philosophy? “You’ve gotta keep your soul alive. So you write one for yourself and one for the public. And write at least two songs a week. Never less. Because it’s a muscle. If you don’t use it, it goes floppy on ya. I’ve been doing that for 50 years. And I write as much now as I ever did.”
So, on the cusp of 75, Roger Cook is still teaching the world to sing – in perfect harmony.