Founding member of The Nylons, singer/songwriter, director. Born on Feb. 20, 1950, in Pikeville, Tenn.; died on Dec. 29, 2013, in Battle Creek, Mich., of cardiac arrest, aged 63.
James Paul Cooper was born near Chattanooga and grew up in Michigan, raised on gospel music and, as he said, “breast-fed on rhythm and blues.” That rich history fuelled his career as a songwriter, singer, and founding father of the Canadian a cappella group, The Nylons.
Paul moved to Toronto in the late 1960s, dodging the U.S. Army draft; he wryly explained that he “was stationed in Canada during the Vietnam War.” He worked as an actor in Toronto theatres, where we met in the summer of 1978 as cast members in a production of Oklahoma! Around this time, Paul and fellow thespian Marc Connors had been toying with the idea of forming a vocal group, to be called The Nylons, and in early 1979 the group took shape with the addition of Denis Simpson and me.
We made our debut on a cold February night in a small Yorkville eatery called Scoops, on a “sing for your supper” night, with a repertoire of four songs and an audience of about a dozen people. We were “discovered” soon after, and our musical career took off.
Paul was easily our most prolific songwriter, and I admired not only his dexterity with lyrics but also the way he was tuned in to pop culture. He repeatedly insisted we record Kiss Him Goodbye, to the point where we finally gave in, just to shut him up. It went on to become our biggest hit.
Paul was an ideas guy, a director at heart, and was never afraid to think big. Engaging, persuasive, ambitious, he pushed to move The Nylons to larger venues, beyond the cabarets and nightclubs that made up the heady Queen West music scene. Our self-titled (and self-financed) first album was released in February, 1982, and went platinum within two months, the first of several. The rest of the 1980s were a blur, as we toured across Canada, to Europe, Australia, Japan and the United States.
Whenever we performed anywhere in or near Michigan, he would brace us for the upcoming welcome from his family, dubbed Attack from the Planet Cooper. There was never any doubt that the Cooper family was in the house: That’s where the party was. After retiring from The Nylons in 1990, Paul divided his time between Toronto and Battle Creek, where he moved to be closer to his sisters Dorothy and Brenda and extended family. There he coached and sang with a cappella groups such as Three Men and a Tenor, The Doo-Wops, and the Battle Creek Barbershop Choir.
When he visited Toronto, Paul might join us on stage – and oh, how the years would melt away, to the surprise and delight of the gathered assembly. In 2013, Paul was inducted into the Barbershop Harmony Society as a lifetime member. He accepted the honour – with the proviso that The Nylons be included. That morphed into a reunion appearance, including past and current Nylons, in July at the BHS convention in Toronto.
At the sound check that afternoon, his authority was on full display as he just plain took over – vigorous, bossy, opinionated … it was like old times and I loved it! No one suspected it would be our final event together. Sharing so closely in his life was a unique education. Paul leaves an enduring legacy of music, love and gales of laughter.
Claude Morrison is Paul’s friend, and the last remaining member of the original Nylons.
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