B.J. Cook: Life of a rock survivor


David Foster


B.J. Cook and David Foster with Skylark

These are some excerpts from an article by Times Colonist, B.J. Cook speaks about the 70’s and his partnership with band Skylark and David Foster.

A new Victoria studio honours B.J. Cook, a musical pioneer who did it her way
Adrian Chamberlain, Times Colonist

B.J. (Bonnie Jean) Cook is absolutely chuffed that a new recording studio slated for Victoria High School will be named in her honour.

She’s also amused by the underlying irony.

Victoria’s Cook — David Foster’s ex-wife and once a minor rock hero herself — is a driving force and fundraiser for the innovative project. An unorthodox initiative for any school, Studio 65: The B.J. Cook Educational Recording Institute, will help would-be rock stars and future engineers gain hands-on-the-knobs experience.

She was also instrumental in helping a wet-behind-the-ears Foster get launched in the business. And when they split up after a decade, Cook struggled to make it on her own. She persevered, despite years of being financially ignored by the man who became a Grammy-winning producer to the stars: Celine Dion, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. It was tough. Much later, when the suppressed emotional pain of the past finally caught up with her, Cook suffered a depression severe enough to confine her to bed for two years.

“She survived all that stuff,” said longtime friend Prakash John, who has played bass for Parliament, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. “That’s just utterly amazing to me.” Today, life is good for Cook. Her daughter with Foster, Amy Foster-Gillies, is an award-winning songwriter who wrote a hit for Michael BublĂ©. Meanwhile, Cook and Foster have reconciled to the point where he regularly asks her to scout young talent for him. And she now owns an upscale townhouse in a posh waterfront location.

In 1973, Cook and David Foster reached an apex in their nascent rock-star careers. That was the year their band, Skylark, played its ballad Wildflower on Burt Sugarman’s Midnight Special. The NBC-TV show, viewed by millions, hosted the elite of pop and rock.

Cook, one of Skylark’s lead singers, performed in a billowy peasant dress. Fashionable at the time, it also helped conceal the fact she was 71/2 months pregnant with Foster’s child, Amy.

Wildflower was a tremendous MOR hit in Canada and the U.S., even denting the Billboard Top 10. The ballad was written by Skylark’s guitarist Doug Edwards and Dave Richardson, a Victoria police officer. Yet just a year later, Skylark had fallen apart, despite having chart-topper and a recording contract. Edwards and another band member, unable to get along with the drummer, left the group.

The route to rock fame — even one-hit-wonderdom — had not been easy. Cook and Foster formed Skylark after Foster was unceremoniously fired from Ronnie Hawkins’s band. A rockabilly pioneer whose previous bandmates went on to achieve superstardom with the Band, Hawkins was impressed with Foster’s skill as a pianist and organist. But he thought the younger man lacked charisma.

“David had no stage presence,” said Hawkins. “I told him, ‘David, you look like a cadaver up there.’ ” Hawkins had been satisfied with Cook — who sang well and had the sort of raucous personality that entertains a beer-fuelled crowd. But the pair were a couple, so they both left.

Foster, a prodigy who had joined Chuck Berry’s backup band as a teen, was devastated at his dismissal. Lying in bed together one night, Cook made a bold proposal. “I said, ‘F–k Ronnie Hawkins. Let’s just put our own band together.’ ” Foster eventually agreed, but only if Cook could assemble his ultimate band. He wanted some of Canada’s premier rock musicians and singers. By a small miracle, each musician on the list was available. Cook convinced Foster’s dream team to join up within four days.

After a series of preliminary concerts in Vancouver and Edmonton, Skylark was fine-tuned and ready to soar. It was Cook — seven years older than Foster and already a seasoned veteran of Canada’s music scene — who then scored their deal with Capitol Records in Los Angeles.

She had already tried to make it L.A. once before, a wild escapade that required sleeping on floors and escaping a crazed companion who pressed a gun to her skull. Despite such adventures, Cook managed to stay in touch with a producer she had met. He took Skylark’s tape and, impressed, forwarded it to Capitol.

Even though Skylark eventually tumbled from the heavens, Cook’s music savvy would later prove invaluable to David Foster.

By chance, Cook met Foster — whom she already knew from Victoria — at a Vancouver bar. Foster was working in Alberta with respected jazz musician Tommy Banks and was already considered a hot talent on the rise. Foster told Cook he was assembling a new band in Edmonton that needed a singer.

“I said, ‘Who’s in the band?’ He said, ‘Ronnie Hawkins.’ ” An amazed Cook requested an audition. She got the gig, and found it to be “rock’n’roll boot camp.” Musicians were fined for minor infractions — dressing improperly or having dirty fingernails. After gigs, the exhausted band would rehearse until the wee hours. Although tough, it was an invaluable musical education.

Recalls Hawkins: “B.J. had it all. She’d already been to the mountain-top…. She was an entertainer, a singer. She was a talented girl.” Canadian rock journalist Larry LeBlanc, a former correspondent for Billboard magazine, saw Cook perform in those days. “She was a dynamic singer. And she could really tackle those R&B songs.” LeBlanc, who knows both Cook and Foster, remembers them as an odd couple. Back then Foster was a shy “babe in the woods” whose wholesome good looks reminded LeBlanc of Donny Osmond. Cook, on the other hand, was a boisterous character. She very much held her own with the flamboyant Hawkins during shows at Toronto’s Le Coq D’Or.

Before signing the Capitol Records contract with Skylark, Foster had dreamed of being a jazz musician. His tune had literally changed, however, after he and Cook attended a club concert given by his idol, jazz pianist Bill Evans. Only about 10 people showed up to hear one of the most celebrated figures in jazz.

“It was a life altering moment to him, because at that moment he realized you don’t make any money doing [jazz],” Cook said.

Following Skylark’s breakup, Foster set out to become a freelance studio musician. She and Foster had married before she became pregnant with her second child, Amy. Cook, who suffered from endometriosis, had believed she was infertile and imagined they’d have a life together in music. But after Amy was born, things changed.

“David wanted his wife to stay home and have babies and cook and clean,” she said.

Although it wasn’t the life she wanted, Cook — deeply in love — tried be to a traditional wife until Amy was four. Then she decided she’d had enough.

“I tried, I did… [but] I ended up just hating his guts and thinking he was an a–hole,” she said. “I didn’t want to be at home raising a kid. I wanted to be at the sessions.” Even as a hausfrau, Cook proved useful to Foster. She became his personal administrator, organizing his new life as an L.A. session musician. Foster, she remembers, was initially frustrated with the paltry gigs he was doing, such as being a rehearsal pianist for future Charlie’s Angel Cheryl Ladd, then an aspiring singer.

His career finally blasted off when he was invited to a weekly jam session hosted by Jim Keltner, a famed drummer who’d played with members of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

At first Foster was unsure whether to accept the invite. Cook encouraged him to go, believing it might be a way of getting his name out. It turned out the sessions were frequented by 1970s rock royalty, including George Harrison, Harry Nilsson and Danny Kortchmar.

Foster didn’t return from the jam session until the next morning at 8 a.m. It turned out the gang was impressed with Foster’s chops. Immediately, his day-timer was full.

“My function,” said Cook, “was to get David’s life started, to put him on the road.” This might seem a brash statement, given Foster’s subsequent success — which includes holding senior executive positions at Atlantic Records and Warner Music. Yet the sentiment is echoed by many interviewees. Hawkins, for instance, believes Cook’s music experience and street smarts were crucial in helping Foster ascend the ladder. Her friend Prakash John says: “I know that she singlehandedly — I’ll go out on a limb here — made David Foster what he is today.” Foster himself is quick to give his ex-wife credit.

“I think I was destined to do well, but she certainly short-cutted it for me,” he said. “She introduced me to so many things and taught me so much about life and also about the music business.” Today, Foster and Cook’s relationship has healed to the point where they’re friends once again. She often travels from city to city, helping her ex-husband scout out new talent for his David Foster and Friends fund-raising concerts.

“If she asks me to listen to something, I’ll listen,” said Foster, praising her acute ear for talent. “And I might not for 99 other people.” Yet Cook says after they split up in 1981, he was angry at her for years. Following their separation, Foster gave her the rights to a few of his songs; however, they were mostly B-listers in the earning department. The exception was the 1978 disco hit Got to Be Real, which Foster co-wrote. Used as the theme song for national commercial campaigns by Clairol, Hanes and KIA, its royalities alone earn Cook a comfortable living.

But Cook says Foster didn’t let on until years later that money was accumulating for her from this source. After the split, a 40-year-old Cook moved to Toronto in 1981 with Amy to try to make a living as a songwriter.

In 1985, Foster flew to Toronto to organize a famous music project. Tears Are Not Enough, which raised funds to battle famine in Ethiopia, followed the path of a similar American effort, We Are the World. The song Tears Are Not Enough showcased the cream of Canadian pop artists, including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Anne Murray.

Early on, there was an outcry when it appeared no black musicians were to appear on the single. A worried Foster, knowing that Cook was plugged into the Toronto music scene, asked his ex-wife to bail him out. Soon she’d lined up a pair of black artists: Donnie Gerrard of Skylark (who wasn’t on speaking terms with Foster) and Liberty Silver.

At the Tears Are Not Enough sessions, Cook was permitted to chat with Canada’s pop elite. But when everyone filed in for the actual recording, Foster neglected to invite her to sing with the large chorus. Hurt and tearful, she grabbed her coat and headed for the exit.

“It was the most pain I’ve ever had in my life. It was like he shot me,” she said.

The slight was ameliorated somewhat when an assistant asked Cook to sit in the control room. Foster needed help directing the artists, some of whom were singing out of tune. (Famously, when Foster complained about Young’s intonation, the reedy-voiced star responded: “That’s my style, man.”) Today, Foster describes Cook as a complex and singular woman — a strong personality who can be difficult to get along with. He credits her talent as a songwriter and a mentor, yet maintains “she can help a lot of other people better than she can help herself.” He also admits he was too focused on his own career when they married.



“The only way I can explain that marriage is that I was very young, very ambitious and at that point in my life I didn’t really understand anyone’s needs except my own,” he said. “I certainly get along fantastically with her now.” “I always say David Foster and I were a great team,” said Cook, “but a lousy couple.”

Read the complete article: Victoria Times Colonist