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Meet Norwich’s answer to the Man in Black - Albert Cooper

Entertainer Albert Cooper on his balcony overlooking Chapel Field Road, Norwich. Picture: Denise Bradley

Entertainer Albert Cooper on his balcony overlooking Chapel Field Road, Norwich. Picture: Denise Bradley

Archant

Albert Cooper is one of the most popular musicians Norwich has ever produced – but he’s still petrified every time he has to perform.

“People think I’m gregarious, but I get terrified every time. It’s the same whether I’m playing in front of thousands at Blickling Hall or one person in a pub.

“If you were to ask me now to play a song, I would be really nervous.”

But he has a compulsion to carry on.

“I have to. It’s like a moth to a flame. I was singing in 1942 when I was just eight, and I’ve been singing from 1954, as a man. It’s like an adrenaline trip.

“I don’t care how many people I play to. If someone comes up and says to me that they really enjoyed it, then it’s worthwhile.”

That urge to continue performing has also kept him a very young and sprightly 79-year-old.

He added: “I don’t identify with people my own age. I was on a bus the other day and this grey-haired lady came up to me and said that we went to school together. I don’t think of myself as 79.”

Albert may be only small, but on stage he is said to be a giant, and readers can judge for themselves when he plays at the Rumsey Wells pub in St Andrew’s Street, Norwich on September 20.

And while he now rations his live performances to just once a month, wherever he plays the crowds gather to listen to him.

It’s been that way since the 1950s, when one of the first skiffle groups in Norwich, the Jolly Butchers, which he formed, could be heard up and down Ber Street and in and out of the courts and yards.

“I have always worked but music has been the most important thing in my life,” he said.

Fashion has also always been important to him – he met me dressed head to toe in black – and he now gets his clothes online from a country and western retailer in Arkansas in the US. As a youngster he was a big fan of western films and his musical idol was Dick Haymes.

He added: “My view of music and of life is that I have always tried to do my best.

“I always told my children that if they failed an exam, but did their best, it was all right with me. I think it’s essential but a lot of people nowadays don’t seem to do their best.”

He was born to Albert and Alice Cooper of William Street, Norwich, in June 1933.

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.

His father 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.

“That was my big break. There was no music teaching in school and you were lucky if you had a triangle to play,” he said.

His first public appearance came in December 1945 at the Hippodrome in St Giles, where he sang Christmas carols. But his musical career was put on hold 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 he was wandering along Ber Street after choir practice and he heard a voice that would change the course of his life forever.

“I’ll never forget it. It was an amazing voice. I looked inside and there was this woman, dressed in black, standing on a box, singing,” he said.

Her name was Black Anna. She ran the Jolly Butchers, in those days a world famous pub, and he was hooked. “There was no one else like her. We hit it off straight away. I was all fire in those early days.”

It was in 1954 that he launched his adult singing career in the pub and people travelled from far and wide to listen to them.

Anna and Albert were a terrific double act and he then formed one of the first skiffle groups in Norwich with Bernard Rudden, Dave Keeley and Vernon on the washboard.

As the other skiffle boys turned into rock ‘n’ rollers, he moved towards the 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.

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, who loved the club and the Coopers.

Mr Cooper is still one of the cool cats today, and recently gigged in Ibiza with The Blues Mafia.

Who would you like to nominate as our next Evening News’ Original? Call David Bale on 01603 772427 or email david.bale2@archant.co.uk

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