Cambridge’s Cantab Lounge pays tribute to ‘Peanut Man’ Little Joe Cook

Originally published May 7, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Michael Williams takes to the harmonica during the Wednesday night blues jam, which Little Joe Cook started in the 1970's, at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Photo by Erin Baldassari/Wicked Local

Michael Williams takes to the harmonica during the Wednesday night blues jam, which Little Joe Cook started in the 1970’s, at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Photo by Erin Baldassari/Wicked Local

Cambridge resident Mike Handelman stepped up to the mic for the Cantab Lounge’s weekly blues jam, his voice straining to add the gravel that comes with age.

The 25-year-old Melrose native has been coming to the jam for over a year for a chance to play R&B, blues and rock and roll with musicians who have played longer than he’s been alive. The bi-weekly night, every Wednesday and Sunday in the bar’s upstairs space, is not the only vestige of R&B singer Little Joe Cook, who started the jam more than 30 years ago. Cook died April 15 at the age of 91.

Cook’s legacy left an indelible mark on the city, said Cantab general manager Steve Ramsey, who started coming to the Cantab in 1976 and watched Cook transform the music scene in Cambridge’s Central Square. When Cook started playing at the bar five nights a week, beginning in 1979, Ramsey said something changed. People started paying attention.

“Before, there were bars that would have some bands playing in the corner with some acoustic music or whatever, but what Joe actually did was he brought a really big time show to a small bar,” Ramsey said. “If you wanted to go see a big time band, you had to go into town, or in North Cambridge to a club called Tiffany’s, but those have all long past.”

The Philadelphia native gained fame in the late 1950s for his single, “Peanuts,” which stayed on the Billboard charts for 15 weeks and was later covered by Frankie Valli, with the Four Seasons, and incorporated into commercials. Cook appeared on “American Bandstand” with his lesser-known song, “Let’s do the Slop,” about a dance move he created, and he toured the country, playing with the likes of B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland.

Lines started to form out the door to see Cook’s show, Ramsey said, and soon enough, other bars were following suit. For anyone who has watched Cook perform, the reason for the draw is obvious.

“He was the ultimate entertainer,” said Joe Bellomo, a drummer who now runs the jam.

Known for his banana-yellow Cadillac with custom rims, fins, and a vanity plate that read, “Nut Man,” Cook knew how to work a crowd.

“He knew how to read the room,” said Candido “Candy” Delgado, a long-time guitarist for Cook. “Every time it was different and he knew what to do.”

As a young musician at the tender age of 17, Delgado said Cook took him under his wing. When touring soul and R&B bands came to Boston, Cook would take Delgado backstage to meet the groups.

“I got to see and meet so many people through Joe,” Delgado said. “We would hang out at the clubs when they were performing and when they would break, Joe would take me back to the dressing room and he would talk to them because he knew them all.”

Described as a tireless performer and musician, Cook demanded a lot from his backup band, The Thrillers, Delgado said. He knew what he wanted and wanted nothing less than that.

“He was especially hot on drummers,” Delgado said. “He couldn’t keep drummers too much. He wanted a certain beat and he didn’t want them to play the symbols too much and to play the big bass drum in a certain way. They usually wanted to play more, but he wouldn’t let them.”

But Cook also gave Delgado a chance to join the band when he was still a rookie guitarist, Delgado said. He stuck by Delgado and helped him grow as a musician.

“There were good times and bad times, but I try to remember the good times,” Delgado said.

On a recent Wednesday night at the Cantab, only a few of the audience members and players remember Cook personally. They keep coming back for the love of the music, they said.

“It’s funky,” said Greg King, who’s been coming to watch the jam for more than 20 years. “The Cantab is a down-home kind of place, like the kind you might find in New Orleans, and it’s really diverse. You got young people and old people and they’re all connected to the music.”

For Handelman, there’s no other place that compares.

“Where else can you hear music like this for free?” he asked. “I get a lot of confidence from it because I can come here and play with these guys who have played, some of them, for 30 years or more.”

Bellomo said Cook taught him the trick to running a successful jam night. Cook knew how to put a light on someone and make them shine.

“You have to get everybody up, make them happy, and make them feel good,” Bellomo said. “You build them up and give them that boost they need.”

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