Musical memory lane at Oak Park Library
Steve Cooper | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun Times Media
‘Big Band Memories’
Steve Cooper, Oak Park Public Library, Main Library, 834 Lake St.
2 p.m. May 10
(708) 383-8200. www.oppl.org
Updated: May 1, 2012 8:44PM
Get set to Lindy Hop over to the Oak Park Public Library on Thursday, May 10, at 2 p.m., when longtime Chicago bandleader and musician Steve Cooper will present “Big Band Memories.” The 90-minute program is his own compilation of rare film clips from the Big Band era, which Cooper enlivens with personalized narration.
“I put together the show, then saw I’d played with or knew practically everyone in it, and had insider stories,” Cooper laughs, explaining why his program is unique. It’s also popular. Cooper, a La Grange Park resident, has presented “Big Band Memories” 160 times in eight years, since his wife, a Brookfield librarian, originally suggested he create it for her library.
“The program is fun, it’s educational and it has some of the best music of all time,” he said. “These are my musical heroes.”
Cooper, 64, grew up near Wrigley Field, attended Lane Tech High School, and played his first gig in 1963 with a four-piece combo band of classmates that was typical of its day.
A trumpet player, Cooper was joined by a drummer, saxophonist and accordion player to perform at weddings and, when he was 16, at the Como Inn. The foursome played on as the Como Inn house band from 1964 until 1981, enchanting guests with Italian love songs, bossa nova and show tunes.
For the next quarter-century Cooper was first trumpet for the Stanley Paul Orchestra. Considered the quintessential celebrity party and wedding band in Chicago, the orchestra was entree to glamorous private gatherings with the likes of Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra Jr., Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore, as well as a performance on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
“It was like something off of the movie channel, stuff you couldn’t believe,” Cooper said, noting that he’s played more than 3,500 weddings and 1,000 outdoor concerts over the course of his career.
Cooper will come bearing a trumpet to the Oak Park library and conclude his program with audience requests for songs.
“I tell people I know every song there is because I’ve played with so many different bands,” he said. “And I do know them, at least all the standards.”
Some of the most popular video clips in his program include scenes from Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom.
“A lot of older people cry because they remember dancing there and thought they’d never see it again,” Cooper relates.
Favorites also include footage of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey performing on Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners” show, comedian Sid Caesar playing saxophone with Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa, and a young, thin Merv Griffin singing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” with Freddy Martin’s Orchestra.
“People start singing along. They haven’t heard the song in 50 years and still know all the words,” Cooper said.
Another popular video clip is from Cooper’s own performance 12 years ago in Skokie with some of the original Lawrence Welk players. The audience enjoys seeing how the musicians look more recently, he said.
Cooper is amused and sometimes surprised by the Big Band era stories audience members often share during his programs. He is also interested in their questions about the songs, venues and musicians.
“For some reason I can always answer all the questions,” he said. “I suppose because I lived it.”
Today, the Steve Cooper Orchestra plays regularly at the Willowbrook Ballroom in Willow Springs and the Chevy Chase Country Club in Wheeling.