The Kennedy Center

Barbara Cook


(Singer; October 25, 1927-August 8, 2017)

Her voice is drenched in sunshine, and for more than half a century her singing has defined all that is best and brightest in the Great American Songbook.

"Barbara Cook is the greatest singer in the world," wrote Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times, succinctly adding one more voice of praise to the jubilant chorus that has accompanied her brilliant career. "In whatever she sings," wrote Stephen Holden in The New York Times, "you sense a lifetime's experience being addressed from a perspective that is still capable of wonder and a determined innocence." The innocence is in the sound and, uniquely, so is the experience. Once Broadway's favorite ingénue and a working legend today, she can bring grandeur and a sense of occasion to the simplest musical gestures, but she also can turn the grandest of spaces into the most intimate cabaret. From the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall and the Met (when she became the first female pop singer to be presented by the Metropolitan Opera in that company’s long history), to the Café Carlyle and the recording studio, Barbara Cook makes every performance as personal as a sweet whisper among friends. Her return to Broadway in 2010 in Sondheim on Sondheim, was a rapturous celebration of one brilliant American artist by another. With her purity of tone, warm timbre, jazzy timing and impeccable diction, she also is blessed with one of those rare instruments that is recognized within a note or two as hers and no one else's. There is disarming honesty in her phrasing. She is an unmistakably American phenomenon.

She was born Barbara Nell Cook in Atlanta in 1927, the daughter of a traveling salesman and a telephone operator for Southern Bell. At 15, she won a $10 prize in an amateur contest at Atlanta's Roxy Theatre, singing the song "My Devotion." She moved to New York to pursue a singing and acting career in 1948, and was spotted by the composer Vernon Duke, who recommended her for a 1950 summer camp show in the Poconos. That led to her first professional New York engagement, at the Blue Angel. In 1951 came her Broadway debut, as Sandy in Sammy Fain and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's musical Flahooley—which also became her first recording.

Cook returned to the Blue Angel, and then things got busy fast: the role of Ado Annie in a national tour of Oklahoma!, Carrie in Carousel, television roles including productions of Babes in Toyland and Bloomer Girl, and the hit musical Plain and Fancy in 1955. But it was in 1956 that Cook was consecrated as a major player in the history of the American musical when she was cast as Cunégonde in Leonard Bernstein's exuberant musical version of Voltaire's Candide in which she was called on to sing 21 high Cs in the musical's score, which included the now classic aria, "Glitter and Be Gay," surely one of Bernstein's happiest creations. The original cast recording soon achieved iconic stature, and Barbara Cook provided proof—if proof were needed—that there seemed to be no limits to what she could do with a song.

After a television appearance in Gilbert and Sullican's "Yeoman of the Guard" opposite Alfred Drake as well as another City Center revival of Carousel (this time playing Julie Jordan), Cook topped her personal success in Candide with another strikingly original musical adventure, playing Marian the Librarian in Meredith Willson's 1957 The Music Man. She won the Tony Award as featured actress in a musical, and she stayed two years with the hit show, leaving to give birth to her son Adam. Her singing of the numbers "Goodnight, My Someone," "My White Knight" and especially "Till There Was You"—a song so popular across all genres that even The Beatles soon recorded it—helped launch the original cast recording of The Music Man to the top of the charts for 12 weeks and sold a million copies. In 1963, with Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's She Loves Me, Cook sang "Vanilla Ice Cream" and became the coolest dish in the banquet of Broadway.

Then as now, she was at home in the recording studio, from distinctive solo albums such as 2007's No One Is Alone and the classic 1981 It's Better with a Band, to fascinating albums of musicals such as Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie's underrated 1971 adaptation of Truman Capote's The Grass Harp, the 1986 London Studio album of Sharon Burgett's The Secret Garden aswell as recordings of Showboat, The King and I and Follies. She expanded her horizons with non-musical plays such as Maxim Gorky's Enemies with the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center and Jules Feiffer's Little Murders. But music soon called her back, and her 1974 meeting with the American pianist and arranger Wally Harper resulted in a musical partnership that lasted 30 years, until Harper's death in 2004. They traveled the world together, performing for four different presidents at the White House. Their 1975 Carnegie Hall concert, followed by engagements everywhere from the Kennedy Center to San Francisco's Davies Hall, London's Royal Albert Hall, Venice's La Fenice, Barcelona's Gran Teatre de Liceu, and the Sydney Opera House, turned Barbara Cook in concert into a staple of timeless musical entertainment. American entertainment at its most joyous.

It still is. "It's Cook's great good fortune, and of course ours, that she's arrived at a point where nothing is outside her emotional range and yet almost nothing is outside her vocal range, either," wrote Charles Isherwood in Variety after a typical concert. "Her rapport with an audience is just as all-embracing: By the end of this remarkable evening, songs, singer and audience seem to have fused."

It's an easy fusion, to hear her sing it. Her career spans the better part of six decades, but there is no younger sound than the voice of Barbara Cook.
Barbara Cook