From White House to Lighthouse
It’s a particularly entertaining story, the way that the two particularly entertaining entertainers entered into each other’s lives.
The year is 1968. Lyndon B. Johnson is the president of the United States. The Vietnam War is raging on. If the protagonist from the movie “Forest Gump” had actually existed, the movie’s general narrative would pretty much be going down. The Civil Rights Act takes flight after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So does the first Boeing 747.
Perhaps ironically, in regards to the particularly entertaining story, “The Odd Couple” makes a $44 million mark at the box office as one of the year’s top grossing films. “Hey Jude” by The Beatles rules the Top 40 charts.
They call 1968 “the year that rocked the world.” They call it “the year that changed everything.”
That was certainly the case, at least for Jeff Cooper and Glenn Pearson — 1968 being the year that the two aspiring musicians with hopes of attending the Peabody Conservatory met at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.
Everything did, in fact, change for them that year, “the year that rocked the world” being the one in which they embarked into the world of rock.
“I didn’t know who he was. He was this tall guy playing the piano,” Cooper recalled with a laugh of the day he met Pearson.
At the time, Cooper, a young string bassist, was in the process of forming a group to play in an upcoming talent show — a somewhat strange configuration of Cooper as the band’s young string bassist, and then three trombones, whose players names are not relevant to this story’s general narrative.
The song in practice during rehearsal that fateful morning, in the Woodrow Wilson High auditorium’s early A.M. emptiness, was “Georgy Girl,” a brand new smash single by the Australian folk-pop quartet The Seekers and title track for the British film of the same name.
“So we go to the auditorium and we start playing: ‘Hey there, Georgy Girl,’” Cooper recalled, humming along to the song’s 1960s pop-pleasantry. “All of a sudden, we started hearing in the background, somebody’s playing the piano along with it.
“I said, ‘Hey, guys — stop a second. Whoa — that sounded pretty good.’ So we walked over [to the other side of the auditorium] and it was Glenn playing with us.”
From there, it was as simple as Cooper asking: “Hey, you wanna join our group? We’re playing a talent show coming up,” and Pearson responding: “Yeah, sure. Why not?”
Not only did the future musical duo play that talent show together, in “the year that changed everything,” but they embarked on a friendship that would as well, one that — little did they know then — would last more than 40 years and change, while still continuing on and with no signs of stoppage, present day-wise.
When riots erupted throughout the nation’s capital after the assassination of Dr. King, in early April of that same year, with Pearson living downtown with his aunt and uncle at the time, and describing the city as: “They were burning down the streets,” and “It was awful,” that friendship would strengthen when Cooper’s parents called, concerned, deciding that Pearson should come stay with them for a few days, until the thing at least calmed down.
“He ended up staying not only the weekend, but we never sort of got rid of him,” Cooper said, in good-natured jest. “He sort of became the adopted third son — me and my brother and then Glenn.”
From there, the two of them — who upon first-meeting today, and probably back then, too, could be, in good-natured jest and somewhat ironically, referred to judiciously as an “Odd Couple,” in terms of their headlining good-natured, jestful banter — were off to the Peabody Conservatory, as roommates, and with Cooper dreaming of a career behind the scenes on Broadway and Pearson of articulating ivory for the likes of the National Symphony and/or Washington Opera.
They roomed together for all four years, playing classical classics at Peabody during the week and going back home to make a few bucks playing rock-and-roll gigs around D.C. on the weekends — just enough dough to take their girlfriends out for a night on the town.
“In those days, our professors didn’t want us to be playing rock-and-roll music,” Pearson recalled. “So we couldn’t play rock-and-roll gigs around Baltimore, where they could find us, so we just went back home to Washington.”
After their college days, the music kept on keepin’ on. Sure, there were some considerations, for Cooper at least, to maybe get what he jokingly referred to as a “real job,” teaching music, but that didn’t last long, as the gigs kept rolling in.
“We’ve been musicians as a profession since we were in college,” said Pearson. “We were very fortunate to play for great people who liked us and who encouraged us to play. We just kept getting better and better jobs.”
Hitting the big time
They may have started on the same musical path, but there was a time when Cooper and Pearson veered off in slightly different musical directions. This is where their respective résumés get impressive, and the names begin to drop.
With different aspirations, Cooper — around the same time that Phil Collins left Genesis for his own solo career — left the group with Pearson and started one called Tuxedo Junction. Pearson kept his group going, and it eventually evolved into the group Floating Opera, which still exists today.
But just because they were playing different venues, whether it be at the Kennedy Center, the National Theatre or Wolf Trap, didn’t mean they still didn’t get the old band back together as a duo to play private parties and events, too.
“During the ’80s and ’90s, there was so much work for bands that we had to have two bands. I had a band, and he had a band,” Pearson explained.
Eventually, they graduated from what they called the “Beltway circuit” back then, into the high-society scene.
To name a few, Pearson has played for presidents, including Bush (both Sr. and W.) and Clinton, U.S. senators, including Rockefeller, and even kings, including the one from Jordan.
“He won’t say it, but he is the No. 1 society pianist in D.C.,” Cooper said. “People like Glenn are a rare find. He can do ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ he can do Duke Ellington — some people can try that, but they don’t pull it off very well.”
Cooper’s résumé is equally as household-name-worthy, having played a separate ball for the first former President Bush, and then the second, and eventually making his way to Broadway to produce the theater music for the likes of Ricky Martin and Sting.
“He’s Mr. First-Call Bass Player,” Pearson said of Cooper.
The band gets back together
While the band never really broke up in the first place, the duo has been back together, more frequently at least, with the formation of their new group: Notes on the Beach.
After more than four decades on the music scene, Cooper is looking to scale things back a bit from what can be a demanding D.C. circuit, and bring his and Pearson’s crowd-catered jazzy stylings and signature brotherly banter to the Delaware and Maryland shore.
It’s here that Notes on the Beach has already started making a name for themselves, playing such venues as the Art League of Ocean City (Md.), Ocean City Golf Club in Berlin, the Salt Pond’s 25th anniversary party, and their main squeeze at Lighthouse Sound in Ocean City.
It’s at such shows that the longtime entertainers get to do what they do best: entertain.
Early on, during Lighthouse’s dinner hour, they’ll start off with some appropriately themed favorites — introducing the crowd to their night’s first fix of Burt Bacharach or George Gershwin.
Things generally start to liven up after some good old-fashioned morning-show jib-jab and Cooper convincing Pearson to segue into some Sinatra — the verses of which he picks out expertly, every once in a while taking pause on the lyrics but continuing on the keys, to say hello to a familiar face or a curious new one.
During intermission, they like to mix and mingle, saying hello and taking requests. They are people persons, after all.
Their musical range knows virtually no limit after appetizers, on the stage with the disposition a couple of teenagers gearing up for the Woodrow Wilson High talent show, while seamlessly sliding into anything American Song Book or beyond, like the tried and true virtuoso’s that they are — whether it be The Beatles and Stevie Wonder, all the way to Sam Smith and Adele.
“Play it, Jeff,” Pearson will say as he (Cooper) drops into a hearty bass line, and the night goes on, drawing increasing pairs of candlelit eyes.
This is where they want to be.
“What’s the most fun for me, still, is just when he and I play together,” Cooper said. “We just laugh and joke and kid around — if the people are not enjoying themselves, then we’re not doing our job. Glenn will get people to sing along. Not everybody can pull that off.”
Upcoming shows scheduled for Notes on the Beach include Saturday, Sept. 3, at Lighthouse Sound; Saturday, Sept. 24, at Salt Pond; and Saturdays, Oct. 8, and 22, back at the restaurant and wide-stretching bay views of Lighthouse Sound again.
But with Cooper and his wife now owning a home in Ocean View, and Pearson and his wife currently entertaining the idea of doing the same, the duo could be on the local docket even more often in the near future.
“His wife has already found a house that she wants to buy that’s in our same neighborhood,” Cooper said with a laugh.
“When we were growing up and our families became so close — he is my best friend, unfortunately, and our wives are best friends — we always used to say, ‘When we get older, we’re all going to live in one big house together.’ I don’t think we’re going to actually do that, but if they end up buying a house in our neighborhood, that’s as close they can get — we don’t need them any closer.”
“We’ll have the medical personal just going back and forth between houses,” Pearson added of when they reach old age.
But just because they’re aiming to slow things down by embracing the Slower Lower lifestyle and getting older, that doesn’t mean that they’ll be growing up anytime soon.
“We’re like Peter Pan — we’ve not really grown up,” Cooper said. “Over 40 years — that’s hard to imagine — and we’re still doing the same stuff we did before, and we’re still having fun doing it. There must be something that we’re doing right.’
For more on Notes on the Beach, including upcoming appearances at Lighthouse Sound and other local venues, find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/notesonthebeach or on Soundcloud at www.soundcloud.com/notesonthebeach. For booking, contact Jeff Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or (240) 423-4366.