Still Cookin'

It's almost showtime, and Joe Cook has vanished. It's hard to hide when you're a 78-year-old, 5-foot-5, bespectacled black man, hobbled by arthritic knees and wearing a silver disco glitter shirt and gaudy gold peanut around your neck, but as 9:30 p.m. passes no one at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge knows where Joe is. “Check the men's room,” a bartender suggests. Nope. “Probably on the bench out front,” a waitress offers. “He usually goes and sits by himself.” He's not there, either.

The doorman scans the sidewalk along Massachusetts Avenue near Central Square. “There,” he says. He points to the yellow Cadillac parked in front, where, with his head slumped on the steering wheel, Little Joe Cook is sleeping.

A smoky, little-known bar in Cambridge isn't quite where he imagined he'd end up. After all, the Cantab is a long way from the stage at the Apollo Theater, where he once performed alongside the legends of rhythm and blues and doo-wop. The Platters, the Shirelles, Louis Armstrong: He sang with them all, in his trademark falsetto. But when their careers skyrocketed, he was left behind to hawk copies of his only hit single, “Peanuts,” and to sing at weddings and street fairs.

“I didn't get my props,” he says. “Everybody else took my style and got rich off it.”

But that's not important anymore. He's come to love where he is. And at 9:55, as if on cue, he wakes up and strolls into what has been his second home for the last 23 years. Most eyes are on the Red Sox game. The stools and tables are half full. His current band, a mishmash of talented musicians, has already started playing. He listens for a few minutes, then, like a priest approaching the pulpit, he ambles up onstage. He snatches the microphone. The music stops.

“Welcome to the show, all you hamburgers and cheeseburgers,” he crows, his energy building. “Don't forget we have CDs here. Everybody in the world knows I'm the Peanut Man. So are you ready to boogie?”

Joe Cook opens the door to his small ranch house in Framingham wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt. He looks 60, not 80. It's 3 p.m., around the time he usually wakes up, seven hours before he'll make that stroll into the Cantab. He wants to fetch his Caddy from the shop, where they're patching the leaky black canvas top. On the way, he rattles off his inspirations: Screamin' Jay Hawkins (died last year), Nate Nelson of the Flamingos (died in 1984), Nat King Cole, Billy Epstein, Ella Fitzgerald (all dead). “A tisket, a tasket,” he sings in a hoarse voice that sounds like a scratched old record.

The car's not ready, and Joe's ticked off. The 1977 Cadillac DeVille with whitewall tires is his identity – the license plate reads “Nut Man” and the horn plays his music. Driving anything else makes him feel not like Little Joe Cook, but like just plain Joe, a simple man raised in South Philadelphia by his grandmother. “I've burned up three motors on it,” he says proudly. “But when I go to the Cantab, everybody knows I'm there.”

He takes the car anyway. Like Joe, it looks great on the outside, but hobbles a little once it starts moving. It spits. It sputters. A radio knob is missing, the clock is broken, the brown interior is filthy. A bronze peanut that fell off the right front wheel sits in the ashtray. A blue Bible rests on the dashboard, along with a toy squirrel squashed into the corner of the windshield. “A fan gave it to me on account of it eats peanuts,” he says.

Back home, inside his living room, he can't sit still. A picture of his mother, a blues singer, hangs near one of himself as a younger man, and statuettes of elephants are everywhere (they eat peanuts too, you see). He shows off mementos a videotape of him on a talk show; a video of Paul Simon singing “Peanuts” at the Paramount; letters on his 78th birthday from Dick Clark, Paul Cellucci, and Ted Kennedy; the Skippy Peanut Butter commercial that used his song. These are the mementos of his 15 minutes of fame, and he clings to them tightly.

Joe is suddenly tired of talking. It's 5 p.m. and he wants to change. He disappears for a while, and comes back a new man. Silver disco glitter shirt – untucked – black slacks, black tassel shoes, gold peanut ring, and peanut necklace. He is Little Joe Cook, head to toe.

Joe limps over to an electric piano and slides into the chair. He rests his fingers on the black and white keys, and looks up through his glasses like a puzzled student, as if he wants to make music but isn't quite sure how. “This isn't my thing,” he says in a deep growl. “I don't really play.”

His basement smells of mothballs and mildew. Stacked boxes peer out of every corner. Next to the acoustic guitar by the door lies a box of his CDs, and along the wall beneath the “Legendary Little Joe Cook” poster are a half-dozen boxes of his 45s, a blanket of dust coating each one. “Here,” he says, pulling out a record. “I got plenty.”

The tables are cluttered with a smorgasbord of electronics, a telephone, an old Macintosh computer. A white cord dangling from the ceiling leads to a power strip, connecting two keyboards, an amplifier, and a reel-to-reel recorder. Joe reaches down to flick a switch. A red light flashes on. What was a basement is now a sound studio.

He begins tapping his foot and tinkling a slow melody. He's right: He can't really play. The bulky gold peanut ring on his left hand gets in the way, and he strikes two keys at once over and over. The nails on his fingers are too long and he grimaces when he pushes down, until his 18-year-old son from his second marriage comes down and clips them. But then he pushes a button and one of those cheesy, programmed background tunes pipes up. A soft smile crosses his face, and his fingers seem to find just the right keys to work into a catchy, R & B riff. “Dee dee dee dahdoowah, dee dee dee dahdoowah.” He hums along in a voice that's right on tune. He's Little Joe Cook now, the hip, swingin', rhythm and blues cat of Cambridge, not the 78-year-old tired musician who suffered a mild heart attack a few years back and keeps nitroglycerin pills handy.

There's a knock at the front, two workers arriving to fix a door. He struggles upstairs to meet them. Do they know who the man in the outlandish shirt is? Do they know that in 1957 he had a hit song on the Billboard Hot 100? That he once toured with B.B. King and sang on Dick Clark's American Bandstand?

It's 6 p.m. and Joe's wife isn't home to cook dinner, so he leaves for Cambridge earlier than usual to eat near the Cantab. On the Mass. Pike his car is instantly recognized. A guy in wraparound shades driving a silver Mercedes blows past and honks. Finding parking is never easy in Central Square, and the mayor has told Joe to use his spot behind the police department if necessary – the Cantab is, after all, in Little Joe Cook Square. But he finds a spot in front and drops off his bag inside. After a dinner next door at the Good Life – chicken wings and shrimp (on the house), fruit juice (he doesn't drink alcohol), spaghetti and meatballs, and garlic bread – he ambles into the Cantab.

He says he may have only another year of this left in him, but for now he's the star. Those who don't know him stare and whisper – Is that Joe? Those who do, smile and wave. The crowd is typical for a Little Joe Cook night: twenties through sixties, black, white, Asian, sober, drunk, sandals, loafers, shorts, jeans, khakis, T-shirts, button-downs, ties, jackets. He stops at a table to chat up four women. And then, quietly, he slips out for his catnap.

An hour later, at 10:30, he's onstage while one of his pals in a suit and fedora waves his CD in the air. Joe shouts, “You ready to get up and shake your poo-poo?” as the band launches into “Peanuts.” The sight of this weak-kneed, vision-impaired, disco-dressed elderly black man singing in a voice fit for a 7-year-old girl gets the crowd chuckling at first. But they're soon bopping to a crowd favorite, “Hold up, Stickem up.” The saxophone wails, the drums thump, and a group of pretty, twenty-something women encircle Joe, their hands in the air, their shirts creeping up their stomachs. His eyes glimmer, his smile widens, and, for a beat, life is good. Wednesday through Sunday, week in and week out, this is the life he's come to accept. And even embrace.

Between sets he rests on the stage and soaks up the attention, from the 25-year-old guy from Ohio who knows the words to every song, to the beaming 22-year-old woman who wants to shake his hand, to the couple who jitterbugged to his songs 40 years ago. Midnight passes with his classic “Lady from the Beauty Shop” and James Brown's “I Feel Good,” and he shows no signs of tiring.

Late night, the crowd thins, and after finishing the last set at 1:30, Joe sits at the bar. The bartender slips him a wad of cash for the night. He counts it and distributes the band's shares. A slow night. Thursdays usually are.

He sits alone for a minute, sweat dripping down his wrinkled forehead, his shirt glistening. Walking outside, he tosses his bag in the trunk. Before getting home, he'll play an hour of cards with some buddies in Boston. His Caddy will be rear-ended in Mattapan, sending it back to the shop yet again, and the tow-truck driver will give him a lift home. The evening, like the rest of Little Joe Cook's life, will not have gone as he'd hoped. But for a few hours, at least, he made a few dozen people feel special. And isn't that what legends do?