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Last chance to see skiffle kid Albert Cooper

PUBLISHED: 12:04 03 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:39 29 October 2010

Albert Cooper at his apartment in Norwich with St John’s Cathedral in the background, where he was a choirboy. Photo: Adrian Judd.

Albert Cooper at his apartment in Norwich with St John’s Cathedral in the background, where he was a choirboy. Photo: Adrian Judd.

Derek James

Norwich bluesman Albert Cooper is 75 and on Saturday he will be playing his very last “concert gig” and he admits he is still as nervous as a kitten.

Derek James

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

The place was packed.

They had all gone to see a slender gentleman who plays a mean guitar and sing songs that tell a story. A man who is simply one of the greatest and most popular musicians Norwich has ever produced.

His name is Albert Cooper and on Saturday, November 8, he will be playing his very last “concert gig” and he admits he is still as nervous as a kitten.

“I can't help it, dear boy. That's just the way I am. I still get so worried before a concert,” said the man who has celebrated his 75th birthday this year.

There is no one else quite like Albert. People of all ages and from all walks of life love listening to him. He's only a small fella, but on stage he is a giant - the skiffle kid who turned into the king of the blues.

Earlier this year he celebrated his birthday by playing jazz at the Green Man in Rackheath.

I called to book a table a month before but was out of luck. “Sorry,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “Albert is here that night. It's standing room only.”

Wherever Albert plays the crowds gather to listen to him and it has been that way since the 1950s, when the Jolly Butchers skiffle group could be heard up and down Ber Street and in and out of the courts and yards.

So who is he?

Albert John Cooper 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.

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.

“He was a great musician and choirmaster,” said Albert, a lifelong fan of classical and sacred music, who 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 young Albert was about to step into the big bad world. He was called up for National Service with the RAF and 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 bold and bawdy 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,” recalled Albert.

Her name was Black Anna. She ran the Jolly Butchers, in those days a world famous boozer, and young Albert 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 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.

And Albert has been entertaining us ever since… as the other skiffle boys turned into rock 'n' rollers, Albert 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. He could have headed for the bright lights of London to reach for the stars, but he stayed in Norwich. “This is my home. I love the city and I love the people,” he said.

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.

And of course the biggest star of all was Albert, and along came his Blues & Boogie Band. He and his band have been having a ball ever since, but he now reckons his concert 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,” he said.

So make sure you are at the Norwich Arts Centre on Saturday… it's going to be quite a night with Albert and a host of other crack musicians.

t The End Game Gig, celebrating 75 years, features Albert Cooper in concert with the Blues & 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.

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

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

Evening News 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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