Key in­ter­preter of pop song­book

The late singer’s in­ter­pre­tive skills were a rev­e­la­tion for Amer­i­can song­book.


Singer Bar­bara Cook, who died Tues­day at 89, had a spe­cial way with lyrics.

Bar­bara Cook’s ca­reer can be di­vided into two parts: her Broad­way in­génue years, in which she en­chanted au­di­ences with her glit­ter­ing so­prano, and her cabaret years, in which she rein­vented the great Amer­i­can song­book by re­veal­ing the hard truths in lyrics and au­tum­nal light in melodies that other singers had some­how over­looked.

Cook, who died at her home in New York on Tues­day at age 89, treated mu­si­cal theater song­writ­ers as play­wrights. She was their vir­tu­oso method ac­tor, min­ing her life to en­dow their art with deeper mean­ing. Lyrics that had pre­vi­ously made lit­tle im­pres­sion sud­denly cut to the quick as she im­bued even pass­ing ba­nal­i­ties (a dish of vanilla ice cream!) with an ar­dent poignancy. But she al­ways served the work. Her re­spect was ev­i­dent in her re­fusal to com­pete with the cre­ators who al­lowed her to soar.

Few the­atri­cal mem­o­ries live as vividly for me as the first time I saw Bar­bara Cook at the Café Car­lyle in New York in the mid-1990s. The posh in­ti­macy of the venue, the pu­rity of Cook’s sound and her own de­light in pay­ing ho­mage to the Broad­way golden age from which she was spawned were in­tox­i­cat­ing. But it was the way in which she il­lu­mi­nated states of feel­ing with a voice that had a Rem­brandt-like ge­nius for shad­ing that touched my soul.

Long­ing, mo­men­tary sat­is­fac­tion, dis­ap­point­ment and dis­il­lu­sion­ment fol­lowed in due course by a wary re­turn to hope — Cook made the cy­cle of ro­man­tic ex­pe­ri­ence seem not merely in­tel­li­gi­ble but in­tel­li­gent. Through the songs of Rodgers & Ham­mer­stein, Stephen Sond­heim, Jerry Bock and Shel­don Har­nick, she let lis­ten­ers know that their emo­tional sto­ries were true, that they were not alone and that the sur­vival of their in­ner lives was worth singing about.

I wasn’t yet born when she wowed Broad­way au­di­ences with her col­oratura in “Glit­ter and Be Gay” from “Can­dide” or when she won the Tony for “The Mu­sic Man.” And I was still in grade school when she made her 1975 come­back at New York’s Carnegie Hall that launched a cult fol­low­ing that only grew larger as her style ma­tured with each pass­ing decade.

Cook’s un­usual ca­reer arc hinted at a darker story, and even­tu­ally she told it in her 2016 mem­oir, “Then and Now.” Mar­i­tal prob­lems, al­co­holism and obe­sity in­ter­rupted her Broad­way star­dom in the 1960s. Inse­cu­ri­ties formed dur­ing Cook’s painful child­hood in At­lanta weren’t cured by suc­cess. The tragedies of the past (the death of her sis­ter, the aban­don­ment of her fa­ther, the un­di­ag­nosed men­tal ill­ness of her mother and poverty) am­bushed her af­ter the end of her mar­riage to co­me­dian David LeGrant.

An un­em­ployed sin­gle mother, she was, in her own words, “a drunk — not a nice, la­dy­like drinker, but a drunk.” Cook de­scribes in un­spar­ing de­tail the de­pres­sion that left her par­a­lyzed on the couch, sur­rounded by filth, liquor bot­tles and a moun­tain of un­paid bills.

Her con­fi­dence de­serted her, but her tal­ent hung on. She was pet­ri­fied about the gig at Carnegie Hall, which she had played be­fore but not on her own. She wasn’t com­pletely alone, how­ever. She had Wally Harper, who be­came her new mu­sic di­rec­tor, ar­ranger, ac­com­pa­nist and stal­wart friend, and a mag­nif­i­cent sec­ond act was launched in which she re­minded the world — and, most im­por­tant, her­self — what they had been miss­ing.

She daz­zled au­di­ences with high­lights from her Broad­way reper­toire and nailed the high C at the end of Bock and Har­nick’s “Ice Cream” from “She Loves Me.” But the vic­tory was about more than vir­tu­os­ity. She dis­cov­ered within her­self a re­siliency, and a grat­i­tude for sec­ond chances be­gan to suf­fuse her in­ter­pre­ta­tions of songs.

Har­nick, in the liner notes to Cook’s al­bum “All I Ask of You,” enu­mer­ates her man­i­fold gifts in a para­graph too long to in­clude here. But he calls at­ten­tion to her “su­perb mu­si­cian­ship” and “first-rate act­ing tal­ent,” points out her “en­vi­able com­mand of mu­si­cal styles” and her abil­ity to shift “eas­ily from mu­sic of clas­si­cal clar­ity” to songs that are “down and dirty.” He praises her “un­shake­able rhyth­mic sense, which en­ables her to dance freely around the beat, lend­ing her phras­ing a re­fresh­ing un­pre­dictabil­ity,” and mar­vels at this crys­talline so­prano’s “swing­ing jazz beat.”

Each time I saw Cook live — the count­less oc­ca­sions in New York, the mem­o­rable evenings at Walt Dis­ney Con­cert Hall and, last time, at the Wal­lis An­nen­berg Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts in 2015, when she was hav­ing dif­fi­culty re­mem­ber­ing lyrics — I would fall in love again with these qual­i­ties Har­nick de­scribes.

I would add one more to the list. Cook em­bod­ied the spirit of the Amer­i­can mu­si­cal theater. A South­ern lilt could be de­tected in her de­liv­ery but her vi­brancy and vi­vac­ity were rooted in Broad­way. She didn’t sim­ply carry on a tra­di­tion — she taught us to re­vere it through her own in­spired artistry.

Cook crossed paths with the great golden-age com­posers and lyri­cists, and she deep­ened our ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the way song­writ­ing, in the sup­plest of hands, can be a height­ened form of be­ing alive. Her ren­di­tions of Sond­heim’s “In Buddy’s Eyes” and Rodgers & Ham­mer­stein’s “This Nearly Was Mine” are as prob­ing as any love poem. She could get an An­drew Lloyd Web­ber ag­nos­tic to con­vert on the spot with her han­dling of “All I Ask of You” from “The Phan­tom of the Opera.”

To honor her is to honor the best of our Broad­way mu­si­cal her­itage. The loss is in­cal­cu­la­ble, but so too is the tally of the riches she left us.

Denise Win­ters

Denise Win­ters

BAR­BARA COOK, who died Tues­day at 89, bat­tled myr­iad per­sonal prob­lems.

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