"Did you have fun tonight?" That, inevitably, would be the question Porky Cohen posed after a show, as we’d stumble off to our hotel rooms in some town in America. Or drop him off at his home at sun-up, after driving all night back from a gig. Whatever the circumstance, the question was always the same. Underlying it was a seriousness that implied many things, the most important being that if playing music resulted in no transcendence, no real entertainment, then it wasn’t worth the effort.
Zolman Cohen, who died on April 14 at the age of 79, packed a lot of fun into his long career. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on June 2, 1924, his family moved to Providence when he was two. His sax playing older brother Ray gave him a trombone for his 13th birthday. Practicing with his cousin, Saul Feinstein, the two became so inseparable they were dubbed Porkchop and Beans. Hence, his nickname, Porky. At 15, he was playing the Pyramid Club in Warwick, at 17 taking lessons from the legendary Miff Mole, and at 18 had gone on the road with Benny Goodman, Tony Pastor, and Charlie Barnet. By the time he came back to Providence in the mid-’50s, he had worked and often recorded with Barnet, Jerry Wald, Lucky Millinder, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Boyd Raeburn, Wynonie Harris, W.C. Handy, the Six, and the Commanders.
Declining an offer to tour Europe with Duke Ellington, he settled down with his wife Esther, and played nights with the Jewels of Dixie or worked GB gigs. By day he sold records at Ladd’s Music. The Jewels became local icons. In the ’70s, Roomful of Blues members Doug James and Al Copley would often be in the audience. At their urging, Porky checked out Roomful and understood why they had bugged him relentlessly to come and sit in. His big tone and driving style fit Roomful perfectly.
In 1979 Roomful asked him to join and, encouraged by Esther, he agreed. I met him in 1980 when I first encountered Roomful in Atlanta, Georgia. I joined the band in 1981 as manager, publicist, driver, etc., and got to know Porky very well.
We spent years together, criss-crossing the country endlessly. Driving late at night is a lonesome business, and Porky would keep me company while the rest of the band dozed. His stories were endless. He could talk about his idol, Jack Teagarden, for hours. "The Master Painter," he called him. He recalled playing opposite Buddy Johnson at the Savoy Ballroom; digging Lester Young from the side of the stand; rehearsing with Charlie Parker. Porky played with everyone. He talked about Stevie Ray Vaughan, too, who was just coming up in the early ’80s. And Albert Collins, Joe Turner, Bunk Johnson, Ellington, Armstrong — to Porky, the style was unimportant. It had to have feeling and not be "Mickey Mouse." Purity of passion was paramount.
Porky left Roomful in 1987, and gigged around Rhode Island. In 1995 Roomful’s Carl Querfurth recorded him with Roomful and guests. Called Rhythm and Bones, it was his first recording as a bandleader. It’s still available and is a testament to a great talent and a wonderful man.
Porky, we had some fun together. Some serious fun. I — along with thousands of others — will miss you. Blow one for us up there.
Bob Bell, now of San Francisco, served as Roomful of Blues’ manager/boy Friday for more than 20 years.
Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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