Howard Irving Russell, better known to generations of Charlestonians as “Super Dooper Charlie Cooper” lost his battle with cancer last night, and the world is poorer for it.
Charlie was a legendary Charleston DeeJay, coming to prominence with WKAZ in the 1970s (and before) and gracing the airwaves with one of the most-recognizable voices you’ve ever heard. After leaving radio, he established Admix, a company that provided voiceover services for ad campaigns and TV and Radio stations across the country. He created and produced commercials, infomercials and radio drama and continued to deejay live events.
He was also very generous with his time and advice, and while I did not work closely with him for long periods like some folks, I do have a few Charlie stories.
“Irritate The Hell Out Of Him.”
Back in 1989, just two or three weeks after I began doing Radio Free Charleston for WVNS radio, Charlie came in to record some kind of commercial spot (which was odd because he had his own state-of-the-art studio…and ours wasn’t) and I got to meet him and talk for a while. He suggested that I beef up RFC with a theme song and some jingles and interstitials to create a stronger identity. He hadn’t heard the show, but encouraged me to stick with it because “It’ll irritate the hell out of John Dickensheets (the sales manager at the radio station, and a legendary villain on the local broadcast scene).” I took his advice to heart, and it did irritate the hell out of Dickensheets.
After RFC ended, I stayed in touch with Charlie for the odd announcing gig, including a disastrous attempt at imitating his voice while he was on vacation. Spencer Elliott was his assistant at the time, and he was in a pinch. One of Charlie’s regular clients, a regional department store, needed new radio spots on two days notice, and Charlie was nowhere near a microphone.
I got the call because I was able to imitate a wide variety of voices, but I never really came close to getting Charlie’s voice. On top of that, I didn’t know the name of the department store until I got to the studio.
Imagine my surprise when I was handed the script, and it was for “Aide’s Department Store.” My twisted sense of humor instantly kicked into absurdity defense mode, which triggered incessant giggling that did not abate one bit when Spencer informed me that, due to the disease, it was now pronounced “Eye-yeeeeeeeeds.”
About thirty takes later we had a semi-acceptable spot. Later Charlie thanked me for filling in. I told him that I thought I sucked on that job. He quickly piped up, “Oh, you did, real bad! You were so bad that they gave me a raise to make sure I only used my voice on their spots.”
Balloons And The Gulf War
A short time after that, Charlie was in a bind. This was when our country was on the brink of the first Gulf War. Half the country was under lock and key in fear of a terrorist attack. Security was heightened everywhere. Charlie had been hired by IBM to coordinate some kind of event at Capital High School.
He had ordered imprinted balloons, but they hadn’t been printed yet, and wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon before the event–and they needed them in hand just hours after that so they could get them inflated and in place. Express shipping was not an option.
The rubber plant was in Ashland, so Charlie called me and offered fifty bucks plus a quarter a mile if I could drive to the plant and pick up the balloons. I was driving a $500 1973 Cutlass Supreme at the time, but I was confident that the duct tape holding my exhaust system together would hold for the trip.
Luckily, I was meticulous enough to call the rubber plant to get directions and make sure I could get through security to pick up the balloons, and discovered that this particular rubber plant was not in Ashland, Kentucky, but was in fact in Ashland, Ohio–about an hour North of Columbus.
I totally cleared out the trunk and backseat of my car. I was going to be picking up 50,000 balloons and hoped that I would be able to fit them all in my car.
At this point, I had been dating Mel for less than a year, and this was a day when she was not scheduled to substitute teach so she was able to tag along on the trip. I got up at the crack of dawn, picked up Mel and we headed North, listening to either of the two 8-Tracks I had, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band or the first half of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.
We made poor time due to construction but still got to Ashland about an hour before we were told the balloons were supposed to be ready. We grabbed lunch. I bought a guitar strap (still have it) and we killed some time before making our way to the highly secure rubber factory.
I had to show my driver’s license and a letter from Charlie to be let in to the loading dock. The country was in the grip of a mighty paranoia as our troops were lined up waiting to attack Iraq (or Kuwait, or someone).
I backed my car up to the loading dock, which was made for loading huge trucks, and Mel and I went in. I showed my ID again and signed some papers and asked where the balloons were. I expected a pallet stacked with boxes that I’d have to break down to cram into the car. The nice lady behind the counter pointed and said, “They’re under that chair over there.”
Pro Tip: Balloons don’t take up much space before they’re inflated.
I felt sort of silly carrying a single box that was maybe a foot wide, fourteen inches long and eight inches deep through the loading dock area. I sat it in the trunk where it looked like a BB in a boxcar. Mel and I took off and headed home.
On the way up, we had seriously discussed how Mel might have to carry some of the balloons on her lap, or under her feet, or both.
We drove home through Amish country on a particularly buggy-heavy day, and connected to I 77 North of Canton for a straight shoot home.
As we approached Ripley, I needed to stop for gas. The 1973 Cutlass Supreme is not exactly known for getting great milage. While gassing up, Mel asked if we could listen to the radio instead of the same two (great) 8 Tracks that we’d been listening to all day. I turned on the radio and we drove to Capital High School, well after dark, listening to the reports that the bombings had started in Kuwait. Back then bombing another country seemed like a much bigger deal than it does now.
When I got to the High School, it was minutes before 10 PM and Charlie was wondering where the hell I’d been. He seemed a bit surprised by the fact that all the balloons were in a single box, and told me to bring my invoice by in a couple of days.
After some initial confusion over why I arrived so late with the balloons and why I was claiming so much milage we discovered that Charlie had not been aware that he’d sent me to Ashland in Ohio instead of Kentucky. He then cut me a check and we both had a good laugh over it. He didn’t realize that, when I showed up with the balloons, I’d been on the road for fourteen hours.
The last time I saw Charlie was at a car show in South Charleston about five years ago. I hadn’t seen him for quite some time, but as we got caught up, he looked at me and said, “I swear, I thought I was sending you to Ashland, Kentucky.” Almost 25 years after the fact, we were still laughing about it.
Charlie Cooper was one-of-a-kind and he will be missed. A Facebook Page dedicated to memories of Charlie has been set up (it’s where I swiped the image of Charlie at the head of this post), and it’s quite the celebration of a life well lived.
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