Calvin & GRACE Cooke AND THE DETROIT SACRED STEEL ENSEMBLE performing as part of Ken Whiteley's SuNDAY GOSPEL BRUNCH with David Wall,George Koller and Pat Patrick at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas West), Sunday (May 25), 2 pm. $15. 416-531-6604. Rating: NNNNN
Pedal Steel upstart Robert Randolph may be the most exciting thing to happen to sacred steel music since Willie Eason twanged his first ringing note at a Philadelphia church in the late 30s.Yet young Randolph might be playing drums now if not for Detroit's Calvin Cooke.
Most of what Randolph knows about the pedal steel - the tunings, the wah-wah and echo effects, the wild whoops - he picked up from his mentor, Cooke, known as the "B.B. King of sacred steel."
It's a fitting handle for Cooke, who not only shares King's style of vocal accompaniment - as can be heard on the Sacred Steel: Live! (Arhoolie) disc - but, like the ambassador of the blues, has also spent decades working to broaden the music's audience by taking it from the Pentecostal Church to the clubs.
Unlike the prolific King, however, Cooke has been criminally under-recorded. Despite his lofty status within the sacred steel community and numerous innovations (just about every church player was using a lap steel until Cooke came along with his 10-string MSA pedal steel in 74), Cooke has yet to release a single album. That may change soon, thanks to his prize student.
"Robert's been with me, learning how to play, for most of his life," explains Cooke from his Detroit home. "I've spent a lot of time with him, so I couldn't be happier when he called to tell me about his record deal.
"But when he said he wanted to produce an album for me and put it out on his new Dare label, man, I was really shocked. I did not expect he would come back and do that for me."
According to Cooke, the Randolph-produced album, Heaven, is now finished, mastered and ready to be released on Randolph's Warner-distributed Dare label, although he's not sure when it will be released - if ever.
"They've pushed back the release date twice now, and I've heard it might be out in June from one source, but someone else says August, so I don't know. I think it sounds real good, so hopefully it'll be out soon."
If Cooke is disheartened by the label difficulties he doesn't let it show. He's enjoying the newfound interest in sacred steel music too much to let his record release woes get him down.
"There was a time when I was the only pedal steel player at my church. Now there are four or five guys in weekly rotation. I have to book a Sunday months in advance if I want to play a service!"
A notable career highlight for Cooke was getting to jam with one of his country pedal steel heroes, Lloyd Green, on a recent trip to Nashville. Along with Green, Cooke cites Nashville cats like Ray Price's steel slinger, Jimmy Day, and Ernest Tubb's twanger, Jerry Byrd, as important influences, right up there with Steve Howe.
Yes, you read that right. Cooke has been a serious fan of Brit prog rock lords Yes since the early 70s.
"One of my cousins introduced me to the music of Yes, and I just loved it, particularly the sounds that Steve Howe and Chris Squire were getting. They were so very different from all the other rock groups I'd heard.
"I'd say Fragile is my favourite album, but I also have different tapes of their live performances that I really enjoy."