Upon its emergence in the early 1970s, disco was relatively harmless. It didn’t cut itself, spit in your face, or try to split your skull open with a bass guitar. Disco was Moulton mixes and Love Unlimited Strings, with origins in the instrumentally vibrant and lyrically sorrowful contradiction of songs like “The Love I Lost.” Distress never sounded so good. It never looked so good, either. The cover of Love and Kisses’ How Much, How Much I Love You LP(1978) depicted a naked lass with a riding crop and leather knee-high boots sitting bareback on a white horse. That was disco music. And the angel that Tavares said was missing from heaven? That was the girl.
Too bad no one watched for the hook, because disco’s euphoric and cathartic rhythms propelled a powerhouse movement that captured the spirit of a people much like the psychedelia that preceded it and the rock and roll it inadvertently threatened to destroy. The era was a monumental period of transition in popular music, but also adversely affected a number of long-standing traditions. Among them, pioneering members of the black vanguard, as James Brown explained to writer Bruce Tucker in his autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul:
“Disco hurt me in a lot of ways. I was trying to make good hard funk records that Polydor was trying to soften up, while the people were buying records that had no substance. The disco people copied off me and tried to throw me away and go with young people. You can’t do that. You have to come back to the source.”
Brown returned to his own roots when, in 1973, he discovered Tony Cook playing at a block party for the WRDW-AM radio station he owned in his childhood hometown of Augusta, Georgia. Cook was an Augusta native who began drumming in his early teens, learning full albums by the likes of Brown, Al Green, Rufus Thomas, Wilson Pickett and Kool & the Gang, and playing in backing bands for touring artists such as Geater Davis and Z.Z. Hill. “He sat in with us and he took for granted that we knew the songs,” Cook says of his first encounter with the legendary Godfather of Soul. “So we played, and from his expression [it seemed] he was a little bit surprised that we could play so well. We were just a bunch of kids. Maybe the oldest one of us was 17. I think I was 15.”
Cook finished high school and was gigging in and around Augusta with a local group called the Liberty Band when Brown and running partner Bobby Byrd were in attendance for a bill the group shared with comedian Clay Tyson. The Godfather had heard that Cook and company were the best outfit in town, and on the strength of their performance that night, hired the crew as his opening act in December of 1975. In the early part of 1976, Brown began to retool the J.B.s and brought Cook aboard as his new drummer, a position the 18-year-old would hold off and on for the next thirty years.
The hiring came when Brown’s career was in decline. As work slowed, Cook joined Etta James’s band, opening for the Rolling Stones and supporting Taj Mahal, James Booker, and Willie Mabon at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival before returning to Brown later that year. He stayed with Brown for the next two years until receiving an offer from producer Frank Farian to bring his band Sky Train to Germany and back Jamaican-born vocalist Precious Wilson. After working with Farian, Cook moved to London and went independent, scoring a deal in 1981 with Osceola Records and producing the first Tony Cook and the Party People singles. The next year, he began working with the Halfmoon label, releasing “Do What You Wanna Do” and later, the seminal “On the Floor” and “On the Floor (Rock-It)” mixes by WBLS-FM DJs Timmy Regisford and Boyd Jarvis.
“On the Floor” found Cook successfully merging funk and disco, although that was not the original intent. The drummer-turned-producer was admittedly trying to score a hit, and to do so, chose to ride the other emerging genre of the day. “‘On the Floor’ was a rap record at first,” he reveals. “We put the tracks down in Atlanta, Georgia, then the record company struck a deal and got Timmy Regisford and Boyd Jarvis to mix it. They took the master and re-recorded a few things, added a few things, and came up with the mix that we ended up with. It was quite a bit different from what we put down in the beginning, but I was pleased with the results.”
“We didn’t know what to call it, but it definitely wasn’t a rap record anymore. It had more of a dance kind of thing going through it. And it had a little bit of techno to it. When we released it in 1984, the phrase ‘garage’ came out, then ‘house’ came out, and someone called it ‘The Granddaddy of all House Records’, so we knew we had something different and new.”
“I first became aware of Tony through the song ‘On the Floor’,” says Chris “Peanut Butter Wolf” Manak. Manak is the founder of Stones Throw Records, home of Cook’s Back to Reality anthology, a collection of rare and unreleased funk, boogie, and proto-rap from the immediate post-disco era. “I found the record in NYC about seven or eight years ago and started playing it in my DJ sets. I was excited because it sounded like the missing link between funk and house music. For being released in 1984, to me, it seemed like the first house record. I loved playing it.”
Years later, Manak began to discover 7-inch singles under names like Tavell (pronounced “tah-vell”), Vernon Cheely, and Venessa Jean that were also produced by Cook. “That’s when the idea to contact Tony came about,” he explains. “Luckily, he had a MySpace page, so I sent him a message that way and we started talking on the phone. At that point, I found out he was also James Brown’s drummer, which I would have never guessed from the sound of his music. It sounds more like the boogie that was coming out in the early ’80s, like Morris Day and the Time, which James Brown was never able to make.”
The Back to Reality selections were originally recorded as side projects during Cook’s work for Halfmoon. The main priority was his British group, the Party People, but in traveling back and forth between Europe and the United States, he developed relationships with local artists like Cheely, also from Augusta, and Jean, who was from neighboring South Carolina. The first single, “What’s On Your Mind,” features Stone Throw’s Dam-Funk on vocals, salvaging what was, for years, a scrapped instrumental. “We were recording it, myself and Vernon, and working on it,” Cook explains, “but at the same time, we went to ‘On the Floor’ because Halfmoon wanted to drop a single quickly. That’s why the vocal track never got recorded. Fortunately, Dam-Funk has the same kind of voice as Vernon Cheely.”
Says Manak, “It’s crazy that Tony is this guy who played such an important part in this music I grew up on, and yet I had no idea about him.” Cook was Brown’s drummer during the historic 1983 concert with B.B. King at the Beverly Theater in Los Angeles, during which Prince and Michael Jackson made impromptu appearances on stage. “I don’t think he really knew who Prince was at the time,” Cook says of Brown, who first learned that Jackson was in attendance and called him up onstage. “He might have known Prince’s name, but he just didn’t put a face with it, or didn’t understand what Michael was talking about.”
“Michael said ‘Prince’ and Brown probably thought he was talking about another prince…a real prince. That wasn’t unusual. We’d go to gigs and anybody might show up.”
Cook’s initial tenure with James Brown came to an end in 1993, although he would return in 2005 and stay until Brown’s death on Christmas Day in 2006. What he learned from his mentor—as did many of Brown’s musical progeny—was the importance of being the Hardest Working Man in Show Business; not just bearing the name, but the sincerest desire to have such an aspiration. Disco’s aftermath was fertile ground, with a number of genres coming to the fore, and Cook was able to adapt not only due to his pedigree, but his energy and youth. He simply worked hard. And the challenges disco presented to others, he never experienced, because from his mid-teens (1972) to early twenties (1979), he was the disco generation.
“I was caught in this at such a young age that I hadn’t really found any other options yet,” says Cook, who still performs with Trunk-O-Funk and looks forward to working the new “old” Back to Reality into his live sets. “I started doing this while I was in junior high school, then after I graduated high school I went on the road, so I never had the chance to decide what I really wanted to do.”
The Back to Reality offerings remain as fresh today as when they were originally recorded. The songs symbolize independence and a willingness to adapt, and having been on hold for so many years, are a timely addition to the present boogie and post-disco resurgence. “It’s bringing me back to where I left off in the early ’80s,” Cook muses, “and I feel fortunate to have had the chance to be a part of that era.” Nearly thirty years later, he is finally getting back to his reality.
And the world is finally getting to know Tony Cook.
—Ronnie Reese, 2010