Friday, November 4, 2011


The title seems kind of crude and unfeeling, but I can't think of anything else.

A good friend of mine passed away today (Friday, the Fourth day of November in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eleven, around 5:45 Ante Meridiem).  Rick Cooper played the keyboard at Angelo's Northwood Villa where Main Lady and I went dancing on a fairly regular basis.  Two weeks ago I learned that Rick had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer about one month prior and decided to fight it.  The first round of chemotherapy caused Rick to go into dementia, which he very slowly shook off.  His nights were worse than his days, and when he was lucid too much visual stimulation or excitement would send him into fantasy land.

Rick was a real athlete and would have made the world's worst infirm patient.  Although he had cancer and a certain amount of dementia, he was still physically capable of getting up and running around.  While he was lucid, the decision was made to move from the hospital into hospice.  Since the staff at hospice didn't know Rick all that well, it was easy for him to claim that he wasn't in any pain and so didn't need the morphine he'd been receiving at the hospital. His family objected, saying that they could tell he was in pain, but Rick denied it.  Rick's plan was to wait until midnight and make a break for it, and to do that he needed to be clear headed - hence the denial of pain and refusal of medication.  They caught up with him before he got out the front door and convinced him to come back to bed.

I managed to get up to see Rick three times over two weeks.  The plan was for me to call before I drove up, because some days were a whole lot better than others.  One day Rick perked right up and recognized me, then lapsed back into a dreamworld.  The last time Main Lady and I went up Rick was lucid for the entire two hour visit - we managed to give the rest of the family time to go out and spend some time together, making future plans and trying to deal with Rick's health.

Rick was a very artistic man.  He made the sign on the front of his bandstand at the Northwood Villa, shown in the photo below.
Rick at Angelo's Northwood Villa
Main Lady and I enjoyed dancing to Rick's music for about ten years.  When we first discovered him he was playing swing, fox trot and the occasional waltz.  I craved Latin music and so dropped a couple dead presidents in the snifter and requested a cha-cha.  "Which one?"  Rick wanted to know.

"Anything but Tea for Two."  I replied.  "I hate that song - "

"What song?"

"Tea for Two.  Don't play it; I can't stand it."

"Tea for Two?"

I wondered if the piano player was deaf.

"Yes, Tea for Two.  Don't play that song.  Play something else."

"Oh."  Rick nodded sagely.  "You know, I don't think I know that one.  Tea for Two.  Doesn't sound familiar to me."

I didn't believe he wouldn't recognize Tea for Two, but I was finished talking about it.  I returned to my table where Main Lady grilled me on what we'd been talking about.  I suppose some explanation might be required here.

I taught ballroom dancing for ten years.  Arthur Murray, Fred Astaire, old widow ladies and lifetime courses, and all I can say is that my students got what they paid for and I never did any of the out and out illegal stuff - although I saw plenty of it.  I got out when I turned 31.  My point is that dance studios all across the nation used Tea for Two as their standard for cha-cha during dance lessons, so instructors ended up hearing the song four or five times an hour all day long, all week long, all year long - and I was sick of hearing it.  The reason dance studios chose that particular song is that the beat is dead easy to hear and it's as consistent as John Philip Sousa playing The Stars and Stripes Forever.  Here's Tea for Two; give a listen if you'd like, but don't expect me to join you.

So Rick played cha-cha music.  He started out with Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White and segued into Tea for Two, then finished up with something else.  The amazing thing was that Rick played it well enough to inspire me to dance, which is really saying something.  When I asked him about it later on, Rick feigned ignorance. 

"Oh, is that what you call that song.  I never knew that!"

"Wise guy.  What do you call it?"

Rick shrugged.  "I just called it the cha-cha song and let it go at that."

We closed out the club that night.  The entire place had been bussed, the floor swept and the wait staff were watching us dance from the relative obscurity of the bar.  I finally asked Rick for a good night waltz, and he obliged.  After that, Angelo's became a regular habit for us.

Rick Cooper at the Keyboard

Thanks in a large part to Rick's musical abilities, we had several excellent parties at the Northwood Villa.  Both Mom and Centenarian like to dance, and Rick was willing and able to accommodate the endless requests for waltz and fox trot, never playing the same song twice.  I had Mom's 80th birthday party at the Northwood so I could dance with her, and after that nothing would satisfy Centenarian except having her 100th birthday party there as well.  When our Pastor and his wife attended these parties, Rick would honor them by playing a few traditional hymns.  Our Pastor is an accomplished musician himself, and he really enjoyed Rick's playing.

Rick actually played his own accompaniment.  He'd record the song on disk, playing all the background instruments and percussion from the keyboard, then play the melody live.  The only trouble was that when Rick started this process everything worked on 3.5 inch (1.4 Mb) floppy disks.  After a few years Rick's collection numbered over one thousand, and the media was getting scarce.  I suggested an external hard drive, but Rick held off.  I believe the thought of trying to organize all those disks and copy them up to a hard drive was more than a little daunting.  Plus, Rick could always find what he was looking for in the stacks.

Rick was able to do all this with nine fingers, having lost the little finger of his right hand in an industrial accident when he worked for General Motors in Detroit.  "Someone dropped an engine block on my hand, and I lost the finger.  I was lucky I didn't lose the entire hand."  Rick explained one night.

Dee (a waitress) and Rick at Angelo's Northwood Villa
Rick spent a large portion of his life in the entertainment industry, and he knew many of the local TV personalities from the 1950s and 60s.  He was able to tell us about Clare Cummings, a slight of hand expert who had learned some of his effects from Howard Thurston and who was prone to win quite often at poker.  Another man Rick knew was Galen Grindle, who could be somewhat irascible at times.  Early in his life Rick worked for the United States Government as a U.S. Navy Frogman, the precursor to the Navy Seals.

Well, Rick passed away quietly in his sleep.  Main Lady and I will attend the memorial services, and I hope we'll be invited to the wake - because if Rick had anything to say about it, there would be a wake and people would eat, drink and have a good time, then drive carefully going home.


Unknown said...

I disagree, the title sounds quite respectful. I am sorry to hear of your friends passing. That cancer thing is a bitch.
I was lucky enough to be raised by a mother who loved the Toledo musical scene and a few of the musicians as well. I'm sorry to say I don't remember hearing Rick, but I would bet money I have.
Nothing reaffirms life like music. Keep dancing.

North said...

Sounds like you were blessed to have known a good man.

Older School said...

Although I did not know the man personally, it sounds like a fitting tribute for a fine musician.
I have seen what cancer does and it's not pretty. Remember him as he was, and not as what the cancer did to him.

Mad Jack said...

Thanks guys and gals. Memorial services are Thursday afternoon. The military will be there doing their flag ceremony, or whatever it's called. I'll be there, but it's likely Main Lady will have to stay home and care for Centenarian.