Requiem for Cootie Stark

inUncategorizedon March 15, 2013


I just had a big birthday. When I reached 40, I was irked, because I felt the compulsion to accept certain realities about my life and where it might not go in the future.  Having not won an Olympic Gold medal to date, chances were it wasn’t going happen in my lifetime, nor would I be discovered the following month as America’s next Supermodel or win a Nobel Prize in anything.  I didn’t have regrets about the decisions that had shaped my life: I had a wonderful husband, two beautiful kids, meaningful work and more, but my life no longer felt a clean slate of possibility

At 50, I really don’t care about all that anymore. It is much easier to appreciate myself and others as creatures all the more wonderful for our imperfections. I feel much more gratitude than yearning. Although, to be entirely truthful, I can’t say that I found birthday greetings from AARP in the form of an invitation to join the legion of the aging and Blues Cross’ invitation to get my first colonoscopy cause for celebration.

More than anything else, it is my work with Music Maker artists that has shaped this optimism over the past decade.  I’ve witnessed dozens of musicians transform their careers and lives in the 60s and 70s – it ain’t over till it’s over. All it takes is a willingness to take a little risk and open your mind.

Requiem for Cootie Stark
Eulogy at funeral services
April 19, 2005, Greenville, SC

“I know he was born Johnny Miller – but to me and thousands of music lovers around the world this dear man will be remembered as Cootie Stark, the King of the Piedmont Blues.

Cootie was born 1926 in Abbeville, SC. As a child he couldn’t see well enough to spend much time in school – so instead he spent his time with his guitar and began to sing. He learned much from the music of his Uncle Chump, Baby Tate and other musicians in his community.

We met Cootie in 1995.  Tim had just started Music Maker and we had a theory: If you take a great musician who may have fallen on hard times and get them a proper instrument and a respectable stage they will rise to the occasion.

And rise Cootie did  – he took our mission to heart and worked hard, playing any sort of gig we could book, practicing guitar and rekindling old songs to broaden his repertoire.

In 1997, at the age of 71 he launched a new career for himself when he opened for Aretha Franklin at the Newport Rhythm & Blues Festival. And as the years went by, throughout his 70s, we just marveled at how he got better and better. Cootie proved our theory right.

Although blind since a young man, Cootie never let his disability limit his experience of the world and he traveled far and wide. He loved nothing more than to go to new lands and share his special gift of music – New York, LA, Cleveland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Austin, Vegas – THE BLUES was on the move with Cootie.

He was absolutely intrepid and although blind thought nothing of traveling alone to a city he had never been before- Planes, trains, cars, buses, boats – and he hated boats – but he was already ready to go. What inspired us most is that he never complained. The strange food, hotels, the long, late hours – he embraced it all and kept his companions laughing all the while.

He toured with Taj Mahal, played the Lincoln Center, the Chicago Blues Festival and dozens of other festivals and clubs; This month he was scheduled to perform at the finest festival in the land, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival.

Cootie Stark was Music Maker’s greatest ambassador introducing countless donors to our cause and in the nearly 10 years we worked with him he performed hundreds of sets all across America, Europe and Costa Rica.

Cootie issued 2 CDs in his lifetime, Sugar Man in 1999 on the Cello Recordings label and Raw Sugar on the Music Maker label in 2002. He is a featured voice on Sol: Volume Blue and also appears in the book and CD set Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America.  He completed work on a new solo CD this past December.

He and several other Music Maker artists worked with Kenny Wayne Shepherd last spring on DVD set due out this summer and Cootie also starred in the documentary Living the Blues which we hope to issue as a DVD this fall.

The South Carolina General Assembly and the Arts Commission named Cootie Stark a recipient of the 2005 SC Folk Heritage Award.

Cootie was a man of tremendous faith and terrific joy. People adored him wherever he went.  He had such an open heart and was always ready to make a new friend.  Rock stars, millionaires, mechanics or waitresses – they were all the same to Cootie. He always had time for a chat and a good story.

Cootie made you feel like you counted. One way he did this was by giving you a new name – I was Dee Dee and among our friends he christened Wanika the Wanika, Ole Tim, Jacki the Jacki, Dannyland – and 50 years from now our good buddy Christopher Uhler will still be known as Christmas.

Cootie touched the lives of thousands with his unique, acoustic blues and uplifting testimony. He leaves behind hundreds of friends, many of which came to see him in his last weeks. His legacy lives on through his own Piedmont Blues and the joyous remembrance of his warm, open smile, ready laugh and immense faith.

It is hard to say good-bye to this very dear friend. But, he was so adamant, so completely certain that he would spend eternity in the Promised Land. In his confidence, I find comfort knowing that already he is smiling down at us, saying “Dee Dee, you’re sooo right.”  We love you, Cootie – you’ll be with us always.”


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