B J Cook
While Canada's music cognoscenti admire her talents as a songwriter, a singer and a talent-spotter, most locals know Cook as a former spouse of superstar music producer David Foster. Friends insist she's much more. Bonnie Jean, they say, is an unheralded female music pioneer and survivor of Canada's rough and tumble rock scene. She's a big-hearted, tough-talking Auntie Mame. Like her or not, Cook is not forgotten by those whose lives she has touched.
As a young woman in the 1960s, she toughed it out at Vancouver's tough East End clubs. She hung out in dives where junkies and hookers fraternized with fans of raw, gritty music.
She once even dodged a drug-addled Johnny Cash when he tried to punch her out backstage. Cook also survived a stint with Ronnie Hawkin's band -- Hawkins being the Santa Claus-look-alike whose bawdiness and joie de vivre are the stuff of legend.
She was also instrumental in helping a wet-behind-the-ears Foster get launched in the business. And when they split up after a decade, Cook struggled to make it on her own. She persevered, despite years of being financially ignored by the man who became a Grammy-winning producer to the stars: Celine Dion, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. It was tough. Much later, when the suppressed emotional pain of the past finally caught up with her, Cook suffered a depression severe enough to confine her to bed for two years.
"She survived all that stuff," said longtime friend Prakash John, who has played bass for Parliament, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. "That's just utterly amazing to me." Today, life is good for Cook. Her daughter with Foster, Amy Foster-Gillies, is an award-winning songwriter who wrote a hit for Michael Bublé. Meanwhile, Cook and Foster have reconciled to the point where he regularly asks her to scout young talent for him. And she now owns an upscale townhouse in a posh waterfront location.
"Thirty years ago, if somebody said, 'You're going to end up in Victoria, living on Dallas Road,' I'd have said, 'Yeah. In a pig's eye,'" declared Cook, with a flick of a jangly bracelet. She glanced around her home, boldly and tastefully decorated -- the fake leopard-skin throw-pillows matching her leopard print sandals.
In 1973, Cook and David Foster reached an apex in their nascent rock-star careers. That was the year their band, Skylark, played its ballad Wildflower on Burt Sugarman's Midnight Special. The NBC-TV show, viewed by millions, hosted the elite of pop and rock.
Cook, one of Skylark's lead singers, performed in a billowy peasant dress. Fashionable at the time, it also helped conceal the fact she was 71/2 months pregnant with Foster's child, Amy.
Wildflower was a tremendous MOR hit in Canada and the U.S., even denting the Billboard Top 10. The ballad was written by Skylark's guitarist Doug Edwards and Dave Richardson, a Victoria police officer. Yet just a year later, Skylark had fallen apart, despite having chart-topper and a recording contract. Edwards and another band member, unable to get along with the drummer, left the group.
The route to rock fame -- even one-hit-wonderdom -- had not been easy. Cook and Foster formed Skylark after Foster was unceremoniously fired from Ronnie Hawkins's band. A rockabilly pioneer whose previous bandmates went on to achieve superstardom with the Band, Hawkins was impressed with Foster's skill as a pianist and organist. But he thought the younger man lacked charisma.
"David had no stage presence," said Hawkins. "I told him, 'David, you look like a cadaver up there.' " Hawkins had been satisfied with Cook -- who sang well and had the sort of raucous personality that entertains a beer-fuelled crowd. But the pair were a couple, so they both left.
Foster, a prodigy who had joined Chuck Berry's backup band as a teen, was devastated at his dismissal. Lying in bed together one night, Cook made a bold proposal. "I said, 'F--k Ronnie Hawkins. Let's just put our own band together.' " Foster eventually agreed, but only if Cook could assemble his ultimate band. He wanted some of Canada's premier rock musicians and singers. By a small miracle, each musician on the list was available. Cook convinced Foster's dream team to join up within four days.
After a series of preliminary concerts in Vancouver and Edmonton, Skylark was fine-tuned and ready to soar. It was Cook -- seven years older than Foster and already a seasoned veteran of Canada's music scene -- who then scored their deal with Capitol Records in Los Angeles.
She had already tried to make it L.A. once before, a wild escapade that required sleeping on floors and escaping a crazed companion who pressed a gun to her skull. Despite such adventures, Cook managed to stay in touch with a producer she had met. He took Skylark's tape and, impressed, forwarded it to Capitol.
Even though Skylark eventually tumbled from the heavens, Cook's music savvy would later prove invaluable to David Foster.
Cook grew up in a working-class neighbourhood on Alder Street, near Mayfair Mall. Her dad was a navy pipefitter, her doting mom kept house. Childhood friend Sharron Nelson recalls Cook as a firecracker who staged plays in her basement. Later, she developed a passion for boys and fashion, dressing and arranging her hair differently from her classmates.
"It suited her. It was her,When she was 12 or 13, she could pass for 22 or 23, easy," said Nelson, who believes Cook was an "ahead of her time" personality like Madonna.
"Bonnie was Bonnie. She did what she did and didn't give a hoot what anyone thought." Cook admits to having been a hellacious teen. Although she was bright, a mild case of dyslexia combined with lack of interest in academics made for a terrible student. She repeated Grade 9, then transferred from S.J. Willis school to Central Junior High where the so-called "bad kids" went.
A life-altering experience occurred at age 15. She and friends decided to sneak into a Colwood bar one weekend. There they encountered Cook's typing teacher, working as a part-time server. As they left, one of her gang yelled out: "Hey, Bonnie thinks you're an a--hole!" On Monday, while attending the teacher's class, a boy named Peter walked in. The other students, knowing that Cook had a crush on him, began to point and whisper.
"The teacher turned around in front of the class and said, 'Bonnie doesn't like boys that are nice boys, who are clean- cut and wear nice clothes. In fact, she probably likes boys who don't have any clothes on at all.' " Mortified, Cook zipped up her satchel, stood up and left, never to return.
She remained a virgin until the age of 16, when she immediately became pregnant. Her embarrassed parents kept her sequestered in the basement, then packed her off to live with friends during the more visible stages of pregnancy. In 1959, Cook gave birth to a girl named Tamre (now a medical supply manager in Toronto).
Parochial Victoria was scandalized. One morning, Cook's mother opened the venetian blinds to discover obscenities scrawled on the window in white shoe polish. The family also received an anonymous letter with crude, sexually explicit drawings.
The harassment reached a climax as Cook and her eight-month-old baby waited to catch a bus on the corner of Douglas and Yates. A teenager driving by "spit at me -- at big lugie -- on me and my baby. And he yelled at me that I was a slut." "I was traumatized by that. And I carried that for a lot of my life," said Cook.
(In the 1990s, while hosting a series of singer-songwriter showcases at a Victoria nightclub, someone who looked like an old man came over and asked to speak with Cook. It was the fellow who had spit at her all those years ago. He explained he was dying of terminal cancer -- and then he apologized.) Fed up with the harrassment, Cook decided she'd had enough of Victoria. She had plans -- big plans -- for herself in the big city across the water.
At age 18, Cook handed her baby over to her long-suffering parents and moved to Vancouver with the dream of becoming a singer. Despite her youth, she already had considerable stage experience. She had previously gone on the road with the Victoria band the Apaches, performing in a polite crinoline dress and white gloves. Touring British Columbia's Interior, the group had been so cash-poor they all shared the same hotel bed. No funny stuff, though -- B.J. was considered one of the guys.
"That's why I swear like a trooper," she said.
After arriving in Vancouver, Cook -- tall and shapely -- soon scored a job as a show-girl at the popular nightclub the Cave. For $50 a week, she glided about in Vegas-style headdresses and sequin-encrusted outfits.
Famous touring acts often played at the club. She once clashed with Johnny Cash backstage. The drugged-out country singer became irate after misunderstanding an innocent remark, grabbing Cook's leg and pounding her head.
"Johnny Cash thought I called him a fag, and he was a pill-head. He almost killed me in the dressing room. I didn't know what a fag was ... It was a nightmare," she said.
"I don't know how I didn't end up being a junkie. I watched people tie off and shoot heroin." Despite all, Cook persevered. A friend from Victoria introduced her to other Vancouver musicians. She started singing around the East End circuit in the early 1960s, gigging at clubs such as the Smiling Buddha, the Harlem Nocturne and the New Delhi.
Blessed with a husky, sultry voice herself, Cook particularly enjoyed black R&B singers. She was excited when a friend invited her to a black club on Hastings Street. As she entered, the band was playing a slow blues shuffle while patrons danced the Madison. Cook's pal, a buddy of bandleader Ernie King, asked if she might sit in for a tune. Although "not keen on white folk," King acquiesced.
An approving King then asked whether she would like to do another. But when she started singing the old Gershwin standard Summertime with a black patois she had memorized from a record -- "Your mamee's good lookin' etc." -- the crowd became annoyed. King corralled her in a booth and chastised her as a racist.
"He said, 'You know, you're a really good singer. But you're an a--hole.' " Eventually, Cook was able to make relatively good living in Vancouver. In the 1960s, when live music still ruled the club scene, it was possible to sustain oneself working six nights a week. Cook regularly played a nightclub on Burrard and Davie called the Elegant Parlour, run by future Cheech and Chong star Tommy Chong, then an R&B guitarist. After gigging at the Elegant Parlour from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. with her inelegantly named funk/pop band Sweet Beaver, she would belt out an after-hours show with another combo until 4 a.m.
Cook spent a decade singing in Vancouver. Then, at 28, she began having vivid dreams about someone she realized later was Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins, a.k.a. the Hawk.
"He'd come to me in a vision, and look at me. I'd be sleeping. He say, 'Come on, Mama, you've gotta bring your band and come to Toronto," said Cook, imitating Hawkins's Arkansas drawl.
She rang up a fellow band member at 10 a.m. to tell him of her dream. He accused of eating hallucinogenic mushrooms (for the record, Cook says she's never been a drug or alcohol abuser) and slammed down the phone. Eventually, her bandmates became so fed up with her Hawkins obsession, they suggested she journey to Toronto and seek him out.
At this time, by chance, Cook met Foster -- whom she already knew from Victoria -- at a Vancouver bar. Foster was working in Alberta with respected jazz musician Tommy Banks and was already considered a hot talent on the rise. Foster told Cook he was assembling a new band in Edmonton that needed a singer.
"I said, 'Who's in the band?' He said, 'Ronnie Hawkins.' " An amazed Cook requested an audition. She got the gig, and found it to be "rock'n'roll boot camp." Musicians were fined for minor infractions -- dressing improperly or having dirty fingernails. After gigs, the exhausted band would rehearse until the wee hours. Although tough, it was an invaluable musical education.
Recalls Hawkins: "B.J. had it all. She'd already been to the mountain-top.... She was an entertainer, a singer. She was a talented girl." Canadian rock journalist Larry LeBlanc, a former correspondent for Billboard magazine, saw Cook perform in those days. "She was a dynamic singer. And she could really tackle those R&B songs." LeBlanc, who knows both Cook and Foster, remembers them as an odd couple. Back then Foster was a shy "babe in the woods" whose wholesome good looks reminded LeBlanc of Donny Osmond. Cook, on the other hand, was a boisterous character. She very much held her own with the flamboyant Hawkins during shows at Toronto's Le Coq D'Or.
Hawkins was a street-wise guy who, in his spare time, managed boxers who'd spar on the third floor of the Yonge Street club. Hookers and pimps fraternized freely with businessmen at Le Coq D'Or (a scene LeBlanc believes inspired the Band's paean to gutter life, Life Is a Carnival).
"She was loud and profane, as much as a man. You know... she was in your face," LeBlanc said.
A friend of his once saw a territorial Cook go on the attack when another woman became overly friendly with Hawkins.
"B.J. took her to the wall, literally," said LeBlanc.
Before signing the Capitol Records contract with Skylark, Foster had dreamed of being a jazz musician. His tune had literally changed, however, after he and Cook attended a club concert given by his idol, jazz pianist Bill Evans. Only about 10 people showed up to hear one of the most celebrated figures in jazz.
"It was a life altering moment to him, because at that moment he realized you don't make any money doing [jazz]," Cook said.
Following Skylark's breakup, Foster set out to become a freelance studio musician. She and Foster had married before she became pregnant with her second child, Amy. Cook, who suffered from endometriosis, had believed she was infertile and imagined they'd have a life together in music. But after Amy was born, things changed.
"David wanted his wife to stay home and have babies and cook and clean," she said.
Although it wasn't the life she wanted, Cook -- deeply in love -- tried be to a traditional wife until Amy was four. Then she decided she'd had enough.
"I tried, I did... [but] I ended up just hating his guts and thinking he was an a--hole," she said. "I didn't want to be at home raising a kid. I wanted to be at the sessions." Even as a hausfrau, Cook proved useful to Foster. She became his personal administrator, organizing his new life as an L.A. session musician. Foster, she remembers, was initially frustrated with the paltry gigs he was doing, such as being a rehearsal pianist for future Charlie's Angel Cheryl Ladd, then an aspiring singer.
His career finally blasted off when he was invited to a weekly jam session hosted by Jim Keltner, a famed drummer who'd played with members of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.
At first Foster was unsure whether to accept the invite. Cook encouraged him to go, believing it might be a way of getting his name out. It turned out the sessions were frequented by 1970s rock royalty, including George Harrison, Harry Nilsson and Danny Kortchmar.
Foster didn't return from the jam session until the next morning at 8 a.m. It turned out the gang was impressed with Foster's chops. Immediately, his day-timer was full.
"My function," said Cook, "was to get David's life started, to put him on the road." This might seem a brash statement, given Foster's subsequent success -- which includes holding senior executive positions at Atlantic Records and Warner Music. Yet the sentiment is echoed by many interviewees. Hawkins, for instance, believes Cook's music experience and street smarts were crucial in helping Foster ascend the ladder. Her friend Prakash John says: "I know that she singlehandedly -- I'll go out on a limb here -- made David Foster what he is today." Foster himself is quick to give his ex-wife credit.
"I think I was destined to do well, but she certainly short-cutted it for me," he said. "She introduced me to so many things and taught me so much about life and also about the music business." Today, Foster and Cook's relationship has healed to the point where they're friends once again. She often travels from city to city, helping her ex-husband scout out new talent for his David Foster and Friends fund-raising concerts.
"If she asks me to listen to something, I'll listen," said Foster, praising her acute ear for talent. "And I might not for 99 other people." Yet Cook says after they split up in 1981, he was angry at her for years. Following their separation, Foster gave her the rights to a few of his songs; however, they were mostly B-listers in the earning department. The exception was the 1978 disco hit Got to Be Real, which Foster co-wrote. Used as the theme song for national commercial campaigns by Clairol, Hanes and KIA, its royalities alone earn Cook a comfortable living.
But Cook says Foster didn't let on until years later that money was accumulating for her from this source. After the split, a 40-year-old Cook moved to Toronto in 1981 with Amy to try to make a living as a songwriter. There she linked up with her old friend Domenic Troiano, who'd played guitar with the Guess Who and the James Gang. Among other projects, the songwriting duo penned the theme for the TV series Nightheat, as well as Air Waves and Hot Shots. A modest income also came from Let Me Go, Love a single Cook co-wrote for Nicolette Larsen and Michael McDonald. In 1985, Foster flew to Toronto to organize a famous music project. Tears Are Not Enough, which raised funds to battle famine in Ethiopia, followed the path of a similar American effort, We Are the World. The song Tears Are Not Enough showcased the cream of Canadian pop artists, including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Anne Murray.
Early on, there was an outcry when it appeared no black musicians were to appear on the single. A worried Foster, knowing that Cook was plugged into the Toronto music scene, asked his ex-wife to bail him out. Soon she'd lined up a pair of black artists: Donnie Gerrard of Skylark (who wasn't on speaking terms with Foster) and Liberty Silver.
At the Tears Are Not Enough sessions, Cook was permitted to chat with Canada's pop elite. But when everyone filed in for the actual recording, Foster neglected to invite her to sing with the large chorus. Hurt and tearful, she grabbed her coat and headed for the exit.
"It was the most pain I've ever had in my life. It was like he shot me," she said.
The slight was ameliorated somewhat when an assistant asked Cook to sit in the control room. Foster needed help directing the artists, some of whom were singing out of tune. (Famously, when Foster complained about Young's intonation, the reedy-voiced star responded: "That's my style, man.") Today, Foster describes Cook as a complex and singular woman -- a strong personality who can be difficult to get along with. He credits her talent as a songwriter and a mentor, yet maintains "she can help a lot of other people better than she can help herself." He also admits he was too focused on his own career when they married.
"The only way I can explain that marriage is that I was very young, very ambitious and at that point in my life I didn't really understand anyone's needs except my own," he said. "I certainly get along fantastically with her now." "I always say David Foster and I were a great team," said Cook, "but a lousy couple." When Cook left Toronto for Victoria in 1993, her life had reached a low ebb. In the Toronto music scene she was well-known -- so much so that big-shot publicist Gino Empry threw her a fancy going-away bash.
Psychologically, Cook was undergoing what she describes as a meltdown. Her tumultuous life had caught up with her. Low on money (she still hadn't learned about the Got to Be Real windfall) Cook lost her Toronto townhouse to the bank.
Feeling like a wash-up, she rented a modest two-bedroom apartment in Esquimalt. She invited an old platonic pal, Bill Vigars, to share the place.
Vigars had moved to the West Coast to kick a cocaine habit. Neither had much money."We were cashing in Coke bottles to pay the rent," said Cook.
She stayed in bed all day watching old movies. As well as being depressed, almost all her hair fell out, Vigars said. Fed up, he gave her an ultimatum: Seek professional help or he was leaving.
Cook dutifully made an appointment with a psychiatrist, although it took six months to reach the top of the waiting list. Mistaking the time, she showed up 10 minutes late. The receptionist announced she'd have to reschedule.
She didn't bother.
"At that point, I came home and started laughin' my ass off," said Cook. "I said, 'You know what? You're definitely got to get your s--t together.' " And so she did -- on her own. Cook gives the television program Oprah partial credit for her recovery. A guest expert suggested one way to battle depression is to write down five things daily that one is grateful for. It took Cook a couple of months to dream up one thing. She kept on her self-help course, however, also reading extensively about depression.
"What I learned was that I was a survivor, and no matter what they've thrown at me and people gobbing on me on the street and whatever, I always ended on my feet. It was pretty basic. I thought, 'You are a good person and you are worthy.' " Although Cook's come a long way, there might be residual feelings of inferiority. A long-time friend, TV personality Vicki Gabereau, describes Cook as being both tough as nails and vulnerable.
"I always thought she felt she was not up to everybody else or something. It's stupid, because she's got all the talent." Having a recording studio named after her is bound to help.*
* Excerpt from the Times Colonist article titled "B.J. Cook, Life of a rock survivor" published October 21, 2007