March 24, 2005
A heart-breaking story of a childhood stolen

Continued from Last Week

The part of a series written by Desmond Allen, first published in The Observer, Jamaica, last Christmas.

Grub Cooper: Out of adversity a musical genius is born Volume 2

If steel does not pass through the fire, how will it ever get tempered? Had Grub Cooper not suffered through adversity – albeit not the kind that should befall such a tender and innocent child – would he have become the musical genius of today? These are questions for which, alas, the answer will never be certain and we, mere mortals, must await the verdict of time. {{more}}

Born visually impaired, Grub Cooper had played an unwilling role in a drama that unfolded as if it were a script that an unseen hand had deliberately written for him: From a wealthy home, his infant life had descended into desperately cruel poverty after his father, Bertie Cooper and mother, Velma Stephens broke up and she left the home with five of the seven children she had borne for Cooper. And when a penniless Stephens could not pay her rent, a vengeful landlady turned Grub and his brother Conroy Cooper, also visually impaired, out onto the sidewalk, then ordered her daughter, Miss Tiny to put them on a bus… to nowhere in particular.

Wandering alone, afraid and hungry along a ghetto street where a hapless conductor had deposited them into the uncertain night, Grub and Conroy were taken by a kind man to the Greenwich Town police station. When a wise and compassionate judge sent them to the Salvation Army Institute for the Blind, they would begin a new life and individually would discover their genius for music.

The musical journey begins

The first exciting discovery for Grub was that he was a natural at the harmonica. He got so good at it that he played in the Salvation Army Institute’s first Christmas concert where he also sang a solo at seven years of age. He recalls that they did mostly oral exams and he was always in the top two. When he turned eight, he started learning the recorder from Carmen Lawrence-Verity, a volunteer from the Junior Centre of the Institute of Jamaica. “She started us in music,” Grub remembers gratefully. “We also used to have to listen to the educational music programmes by Lloyd Hall which were broadcast on radio.”

Grub and Conroy, nine and 13 years old respectively, were at the Salvation Army Institute for two years before their mother showed up. The boys, not knowing what to expect, were ushered out of their dorm by their guardian to see Stephens. They looked at her passively and responded with single-word answers when she asked them a question. “There was a little bit of happiness at seeing a parent but when you grow without that love and affection, you do tend to be passive,” Grub reflects. By now, Velma Stephens had met and married Isaiah Stephens and she began to pay the boys regular visits, sometimes accompanied by her husband.

Rebellious streak

Grub continued to excel at music and at 12, learnt to play the trumpet convincingly. But as he grew older, he began to develop a rebellious streak. Anything that appeared oppressive to him would earn his wrath and be rewarded with severe obstinacy. Like the time when, against his wishes, he was scheduled to play at church service at the Bramwell Booth Memorial Hall in downtown Kingston. Service was too lengthy for him and the punishment for sleeping off would be immediate dispatch to bed after supper and withdrawal of pocket money. Even at that early age he did not want to have anything to do with church.

The second thing Grub discovered there was that he also had leadership potential. When the order came for him to play in church, he came up with a plan. Six of the boys played well together. They were: Conroy, Dennis Haynes, Herbie Haughton, Osbourne Watson, Anthony Edwards and Grub. At his instigation, the group decided en bloc not to play at the service. This performance was part of the curriculum and so the six were suspended. That meant that they did not go to classes and pocket money was withdrawn. Not long after, the other five dropped their protest and were reinstated. Grub held out until he was reinstated, at first to typing classes, followed by the return of his pocket money and going out privileges.

“I did not apologise. In fact, I do not apologise when I am right. If I am wrong, then I will. I don’t apologise even to get a benefit, as long as I feel I am right,” he says.

Wesley Powell’s Excelsior

During this time, the Salvation Army Institute for the Blind had gained status as a school and renamed itself the Salvation Army School for the Blind. This was 1960. For the first time, the Cooper boys were separated when Conroy was sent to the Excelsior High School, having done well – in fact he came among the top three in the island – at the Jamaica Local Exam. Wesley Powell, the renowned educator had made it so that all students from the Salvation Army School who passed the exams could go automatically to Excelsior.

At his turn, Grub took the first Jamaica Local in 1962 and got a class one pass. In the second Jamaica Local he was among nine students who got a class one pass and two years later in the third Jamaica Local, he emerged with the second best result in the island. He went, reluctantly, he says, to Excelsior, having very little interest in academics, despite his natural brilliance. There he saw the blind wonder, Wilbert Williams, currently a physiotherapist, who had placed first in the island when he took the Jamaica Local exam.

Records from Prince Busta

The Salvation Army School was still his home and there Grub’s extraordinary musical talent continued to wow the audiences he played for. He became part of a school band that was called the Skiffle Band playing harmonica, recorder, piano and bongo drums. They got the skiffle concept from David Holder, a British officer with the Royal Hampshire Regiment based at Up Park Camp at the time. Holder built them a base box and the band played at many public events and concerts. They then put a sound system together, with help from the School manager’s son, Trevor Hicks.

“We got hundreds of records from people including Prince Busta. We saved up our money and bought records. One of the hallmarks of our band was that we captured the musical sound from many eras,” Grub recounts. All that listening would come back to serve Grub in a way he could not have imagined at the time. Somewhere in the future, unknown to him, a band, fabulous in name and nature, awaited him.

• More next week.