Singer Jan Cooper was 30 years old and a married mother of two when she got her big break after EMI New Zealand bosses attended her gig in the Hutt Valley in 1984 and subsequently signed her to the label.
Over the next few years she released two albums with EMI, one produced by down under industry icon Peter Dawkins, and in the 1990s recorded two more in Australia.
With her long-time friend Michael Roycroft, Cooper won the Golden Guitar for vocal duo or group of the year at the 1992 Australasian Country Music Awards in Tamworth for their duet album Good Friends.
More comfortable with a radio microphone in hand and getting among her audience than singing from the stage, Cooper toured New Zealand’s RSAs, cosmopolitan and workingmen’s clubs extensively after a chance meeting in a Tauranga motel with the promoter of American act The Drifters.
One of her successes was winning the duo section of the Country Music Star Awards in Tauranga in 1983 with family friend Michael Roycroft.
Born Janet Forrest in Hamilton in 1954, Jan Cooper grew up in Morrinsville, where her parents ran a photography business. Her father played banjo and piano and she learned to play piano by ear. When she was 18, she performed a song with local band Elusions at the Post Office cabaret and was invited to join the group.
By 1980 she had married Gary Cooper and the couple had two sons. Jan Cooper joined the Morrinsville Country Music Club and began entering the many country music club awards competitions up and down the country. One of her successes was winning the duo section of the Country Music Star Awards in Tauranga in 1983 with family friend Michael Roycroft, who had a single out on RCA before the year was over.
At the New Year Awards in Country Music in Napier in January 1984, Cooper was awarded best female vocalist and the best overall, allowing her to represent the competition in the New Zealand Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year, which she also won the following October.
In the meantime, United States vocal group The Drifters were touring New Zealand and stayed at the motel the Coopers had bought in Tauranga. Spying her singing trophies in the office, the group’s New Zealand promoter Peter Heremaia invited Cooper to sing with The Drifters that night. He was impressed enough with her performance to sign her up to his Country Promotions company.
So began Cooper’s introduction to the touring circuit. While in the Hutt Valley, Heremaia called in to the EMI offices and introduced himself to EMI Records division manager Lachie Rutherford and marketing manager Graham Urquhart and invited them to Cooper’s show.
The pair liked what they saw and Rutherford set up a distribution deal for a single. Produced by session veteran Red McKelvie at Mandrill Studios in Auckland, ‘Won’t You Stay (Just A Little Bit Longer)’ b/w ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ brought a nomination in the best new talent category at the Golden Guitars in Tamworth.
Cooper’s charming and laid-back debut album No Looking Back followed in 1985. It was recorded at the EMI Studios in Wellington and produced by Dick Le Fort, who also added piano, Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ. The record also featured Warratah-in-waiting Nik Brown on fiddle, ex-Taylor and Rockinghorse guitarist Kevin Bayley on pedal steel and former Street Talk and Pink Flamingos drummer Jim Lawrie.
She hit the road around the North Island and later in the year supported Australian entertainer Carter Edwards on a national tour. Best known for his Taubmans Paints ‘My Way’ television commercials, Edwards was the consummate showman and Cooper learned a lot about stagecraft watching him night after night. Later there were tours with Johnny Devlin, Tom Sharplin, Bunny Walters, Tania Rowles and The Drifters, as well as a spot on the Patsy Riggir Christmas Special on TVNZ.
Later there were tours with Johnny Devlin, Tom Sharplin, Bunny Walters, Tania Rowles and The Drifters.
Sometimes on the road for two months at a time, Cooper would call home daily to speak to her husband and sons, and every 10 days or so they would organise to meet somewhere along the way.
The 1986 follow-up album If I Didn’t Love You was an altogether more sophisticated affair produced by none other than Peter Dawkins, who had briefly resettled in New Zealand having resigned as EMI Australia general manager after signing Neil Finn’s new band Crowded House to the label in a joint venture with US affiliate Capitol.
The Dawkins family’s stay in New Zealand wasn’t lengthy after plans to lease space at the EMI Studios in Lower Hutt unravelled. By early 1987 Dawkins was back in Australia with Albert Productions. In his 2008 memoir The Icecream Boy, Dawkins wrote, “the Kiwi attitude of that time seemed to be, what the hell did you come back here for?”
During that time though, he produced The Mockers’ LP Emperor’s New Clothes, and when Cooper’s album needed a bit of a modern guitar heroics Dawkins brought in their guitarist Brett Adams for what Adams remembered might have been his first paid session.
Others to appear on If I Didn’t Love You, recorded at Mandrill, included guitarist Red McKelvie, bass guitarist Billy Kristian and keyboardist Stuart Pearce. The fact the drums were programmed and there was nary a drum kit in sight was hinted at when the drummer was credited on the liner notes as Kit Missen.
In 1989 EMI released The Best Of Jan Cooper, and after a handful of trips across the Tasman Sea, Cooper’s profile was building in Australia. Two years later, she and Michael Roycroft, now resident in Tamworth, recorded the album Good Friends, which they co-produced with Steve Newton at his Enrec Studios in Tamworth.
To promote the release, the duo undertook several tours around parts of Australia with former Eddie Low guitarist Glen Bain. At the following year’s Australasian Country Music Awards in Tamworth they were awarded vocal duo or group of the year for Good Friends.
Cooper’s last album, State Of Mind (1996), was released on newly acquired Festival offshoot Larrikin and again produced by Steve Newton at the relocated Enrec Studios at Kurri Kurri in the Hunter Region. The musicians included Rose Tattoo drummer Paul DeMarco, veteran Slim Dusty producer and bandleader Rod Coe on bass guitar, and hot-shot guitar pickers Kelvin Nolan and Stuart French.
In the latter half of the decade she toured throughout New Zealand with Waikato guitarists Graeme Webb and Chris Keoghan and pre-programmed backing tracks.
Jan Cooper still does the odd guest spot and is occasionally called on to judge at the country music awards shows she started out in in the early 1980s. She and her husband own a 600-head dairy farm in Winton and recently moved to Queenstown.
Jan Cooper at the NZ Gold Guitar Awards in Gore
Napier's Daily Telegraph reports Jan Cooper’s success at the NZ New Year Awards in Country Music in the city, January 1984.
Jan Cooper's 1985 debut album No Looking Back was produced by Dick Le Fort.
Jan Cooper on her way to winning the major prize at the NZ New Year Awards in Country Music, Napier, January 1984. Renny Hantler is on guitar.
Golden Guitar winners at Tamworth, 1992. Jan Cooper and Michael Roycroft for vocal duo or group of the year, Whangarei-born Keith Urban for male vocalist of the year and instrumentalist of the year.
Michael Roycroft collection
On tour in the late 1980s. Left to right: Tom Sharplin, Bunny Walters, Maori Volcanics singer Robbie Ratana, Tania Rowles, Jan Cooper.
The cover photos for Jan Cooper's sophomore LP If I Didn't Love You were taken by former Happen Inn and recording star Rob Guest, five years before his long run in the lead role of The Phantom Of The Opera. Cooper's make-up was done by Guest's then wife Lynette Perry.
Michael Roycroft and Jan Cooper circa 1991
Michael Roycroft and Jan Cooper's Good Friends, released 1991
Jan Cooper during the photoshoot for her 1985 debut album No Looking Back.