Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page
YEA O YEA.. - ..Home of Washboard Bill Cooke - RHYTHM, BLUES & COMEDY........ .. .. .. .... .. .. .. ..................I'll be the first to admit that a short biography is a weak biography, and this Washboard Bill biography is no different - there are SO many amazing and fascinating stories between EVERY line of fact recorded here that this reads like a varmint picked skeleton. Someday I'll compile a richer, fuller version but for now this will just have to be bare bones for the sake of introduction.........."THAT MAN SURE IS GOOD, AIN'T HE?" - Champion Jack Dupree (talking about Washboard Bill in the song 'Rub A Little Boogie' 1949)....William E. Cooke was born on July 4, 1905 (possibly an adopted date as Bill - like so many plantation Blacks before him - had no actual Birth Certificate) in the small Sawmill town of Sanford Florida. When he was young, he was given to a couple who lived on a farm because, as Bill put it, "I was too Black, I tried to Bleach myself" (Darker blacks had more trouble with the whites than the lighter blacks had so his family felt it was best to send him away). In 1917 he ran away to Tampa and later found himself in Boca Raton where, in 1926, he weathered the big Hurricane which led to his job as as a railroad 'gandy dancer', a man who straightened train track and replaced ties, all the while singing bawdy songs in blues rhythm. During the great depression Bill, like so many aimless out of work men, took to hoboing. He kept on the move up and down the eastern seaboard riding every line that came his way, and his stories of mulligan stew, hobo jungles and backyard chicken stealing were always punctuated with a fond smile. He stopped Hoboing in 1941 when the Government proclaimed all illegal train riders would be shot as saboteurs (or so he was told). Bill ended up in New York City where, in 1946 he built his first washboard (he called it his 'contraption' and built it with a ship bell, dinner bell, cow bell and five other unique bells - it produced a sound Bill called "rhythm and time"). He played Harlem street corners and small parties, and loved to combine his 'rhythm and time' with joke telling (clean for the women and bawdy for the men). He would often sit in with his good friends Spike & Brownie McGhee, and soon after the three were invited to record with the great Pete Seeger on a Folkways Record (the recording was later 'inherited' by the Smithsonian Institution for preservation). In the mid 1950's Bill's style of rhythm combined with the unique sound of his 'contraption' brought him a series of singles for King records, all of which made their way onto compilation albums (and many a juke joint jukebox). He also found himself recording for other performers (often as as the unsung washboard player), appearing on records for Victoria Spivey, Champion Jack Dupree, Mickey and Silvia Baker, Sugar Blue, King Curtis, Bill Doggett and Harry Belafonte. He formed his own Washboard Band and he spent every winter working with the band in Palm Beach Florida where they would play for such notibles as the Rockefellers and the Kennedys - always returning to the Big Apple when the weather warmed. Soon after he fell on hard times and gigs became scarce - members of the band succumbed to drugs, he did a stint in jail for attempting to kill an abusive Son-In-Law, and the final straw came in the form of a heart attack which left him weak and on welfare. "Doctor said Bill, get to a warmer climate" he recalls, "I said, Doc, I'm ahead of you" and he made his way down to West Palm Beach where he set up shop on a local street corner, playing and joking to the lunch crowds for tips. It was becoming harder for Bill to haul his contraption down to the corner each day, so he took up the ukulele and banjo and soon built a new career for himself as the king of 'Rhythm and Comedy'. He was invited to play the Seaboard Railway station's rededication ceremony (he dressed up in his old hobo outfit for it) and he was a staple at the South Florida Sunfest every year. In 1992 he was awarded the elite Florida Folk Heritage Award and in 1999 he was a participant in the Kodak 'Photo of the Century'. He died in 2003 after a bout of cancer, he was only 2 years shy of his 100th birthday. He is missed but not forgotten, I hope you enjoy this peek into the life of Washboard Bill Cooke, he would have loved that you stopped by to see him here..... -site maintained by Kalynn Campbell for Washboard Bill...... .... ...