Leroy Cooper, saxophonist who earned his keep as the alto and baritone saxophone player for Ray Charles’s orchestra, was born on August 31, 1928, in Dallas. His father was a bandleader, and as a child, Leroy learned the saxophone as well as the clarinet and flute. He began his musical career at his church, where he played in a children’s trio, Little Leroy and His Golden Saxophone. As he matured, he started playing on the Dallas jazz and blues scene. He attended Lincoln High School, where his bandleader, Mr. Miller, gave him the nickname of “Hog” due to his overwhelming size and ability to eat large quantities of food. In the late 1940s he attended college at Austin (at what would become Huston-Tillotson College) on a music scholarship but dropped out during his senior year to pursue a career in music. His first major break came when he was hired as one of Ernie Fields’s sax players. Fields’s territory band was highly regarded in regional jazz circles, and the bright young Cooper became well respected for his Texan sax style. He performed with Fields from 1948 to 1951.
After Cooper’s stint on the southwestern jazz circuit with Fields, he joined the United States Army and sharpened his skills in the United States Army Band. He served at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. During his military service he met Ray Charles in 1952 and also recorded with Zuzu Bollin. Upon being discharged, Cooper returned to Dallas where, in 1954, he played with Lowell Fulson and recorded on Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby” for Chess Records. In 1957 he secured a spot with the Ray Charles Orchestra—an open position he learned about from his friend and fellow Texan David “Fathead” Newman. Charles and Cooper hit it off and cut their first recordings together for the ABC-Paramount label in 1959. This included the songs “Them That Got” and “Who You Gonna Love?” Cooper remained with Charles for over twenty years and was one of the most trusted and consistent players in the orchestra as well as its music director. His work can be heard on some of Charles’s most memorable songs, including “America the Beautiful,” “Unchain My Heart” and the theme for In the Heat of the Night (1967). Cooper also had a bit part in the 1964 movie Ballad in Blue which included Charles and the band. Additionally, Cooper recorded with other artists, including Dr. John, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Joe Cocker.
In 1977 Cooper parted ways with Charles and headed to Orlando, Florida, where he worked as a bandleader at Disney World. Through the years, he continued to join Charles and his band for select concerts in Florida. He retired in 1997. During his life, Cooper married three times and fathered two sons and a daughter. He died of heart failure on January 15, 2009, in Orlando. He was survived by his wife Clemmie.