ArtsATL > Music > In memoriam: Bryan Cole, Atlanta rock drummer, producer who discovered Francine Reed

In memoriam: Bryan Cole, Atlanta rock drummer, producer who discovered Francine Reed

A "Celebration of Life" for Bryan Cole will be held at Smith's Olde Bar on Sunday.
A "Celebration of Life" for Bryan Cole will be held at Smith's Olde Bar on Sunday.

The phone rang and it was Bryan Cole. The year was 1999, and I was getting ready to drive to Tree Sound Studios to watch Francine Reed record the vocals for a jazz-flavored album that Cole was producing. And like any good record producer, he wanted to take care of his artist. “Would you mind picking up a bottle of Courvoisier for Fran?” he asked me. “She likes to have a couple of sips of cognac before she sings.”

When you walk into the lobby of Tree in north Atlanta, you’re greeted by walls full of framed album covers: Aerosmith, Andre 3000, R.E.M., Whitney Houston and Ludacris have all recorded there. The only people in the darkened studio that afternoon were the three of us, along with a sound engineer. Reed walked out of the control room and disappeared into the studio’s vocal booth, with a glass of Courvoisier in hand.

First on the agenda was a torch song called “The Man That Got Away.” The initial takes were about setting sound levels and getting Reed into the song’s ambience. Finally, Cole told her over the intercom, “Okay, let’s do one for real.”

Her voice was vivid, breathy, husky and cracking with emotion. It boomed out over the speakers, flirting with a saxophone that cut in after each line she sang. Cole sat behind the control board and moved his head to the beat, listening intently.

He abruptly cut the song off before the last notes from the band faded out. “That was great, Fran,” he gently told her over the intercom. “Can you do it again?” He cued up the track again, and Reed’s performance was even better as she became more comfortable with the lyric.

Again, Cole asked for another take. He made a couple of nuanced suggestions. This time, satisfied, he called Reed into the control room to hear a playback.

It was the best of times for both Cole and Reed. Her debut album in 1995 — “I Want You to Love Me” on Atlanta’s Ichiban Records — led to W.C. Handy Award nominations for Artist of the Year and Song of the Year. I was at work on a feature story about Reed for Atlanta Magazine, and their hope was that this album — “Shades of Blue” — would widen her audience and bring her in front of jazz fans.

Cole was considered by many to be Atlanta’s finest drummer, and his band, Java Monkey, held court every Wednesday at Fuzzy’s Place. He’d left Ichiban, where he had served as an executive and producer for a decade, to form his own production company with two friends, and this was their first big project. He already had some major production credits on his resume: Delbert McClinton, Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett.

Within two years, everything had changed. Following a gig in March 2001, Cole suffered an extensive rupture of the aorta that led to four surgeries in five days; his doctors warned that his condition had an almost 90 percent fatality rate. He lost his left leg during his month-long hospitalization, which ended his career as a drummer.

Cole fought health issues for more than a decade. Last summer, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm so severe that it likely couldn’t be repaired. On December 9, following surgery to try to save his life, Cole died. He was 61.

“Celebration of Life” to honor him will be held Sunday at Smith’s Olde Bar, starting at 4 p.m., and will feature musicians he nurtured and performed with, including Francine Reed, Java Monkey, the Georgia Satellites and the surviving member of Mose Jones, the seminal Atlanta rock band he co-founded in 1972.

Mose Jones: (from left) Steve McRay, Jimmy O'Neil, Randy Lewis and Bryan Cole.

BRYAN COLE WAS born in 1951 in Montgomery, Alabama, and took up the drums at the age of 13. By the time he was 15, he was living in Florida and doing recording sessions for Warner Brothers Records.

He was playing in a band called Stonehenge, which included Randy Lewis on bass and Jimmy O’Neil on guitar, when they moved to Atlanta in 1970. The group began to gain notice when it participated in the now-legendary Sunday afternoon jams in Piedmont Park with the likes of the Allman Brothers Band and the Hampton Grease Band.

When the three of them jammed one night with keyboardist Steve McRay, a new band was born: Mose Jones. “That was an amazing night,” McRay remembers. “We played for hours. Bryan and I bonded immediately. We were also the last two standing; I think we stopped at 7 a.m.”

Mose Jones quickly built a local following, playing at such clubs as Richard’s and Funochio’s, where the bandmates became friends with the guys in another Florida band called Lynyrd Skynyrd.

As the Allman Brothers and Capricorn Records put Southern rock on the map, other record labels began to scout for the first time below the Mason-Dixon Line. MCA Records sent Al Kooper to Atlanta to find the next big band. Kooper was a legend in the rock world. He’d played the famous organ part on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” and he’d played organ and the flugelhorn intro on the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He also founded Blood, Sweat and Tears.

“Al came to a club we were playing,” Cole told the Sweet Home Music website. “He left saying that he was interested in doing something with us. We began to jam a lot [with him]. Later that year, we became the first band Al signed to [his] Sounds of the South label.”

The second group signed to the label — based on the recommendation of Cole and Jimmy O’Neil — was Lynyrd Skynyrd.

While this was happening, McRay was in the Army. When he returned in 1973, Mose Jones was at Studio One in Doraville with Kooper recording their first album. “Get It Right” was released that same year, followed by “Mose Knows” a year later.

The band caught the notice of music critics. “This extremely talented band … absolutely captivated their audience by rocking, rolling, bloozing and boogie-ing them into submission,” Cashbox magazine reported in 1973. And Record World said, “Mose Jones plays a bluesy brand of rock that comes off as extremely tight and cohesive.”

Kooper would later write that “Mose Jones was my Beatles and Lynyrd Skynyrd was my Rolling Stones.” But Mose Jones was quickly overshadowed by the success of Skynyrd.

Marvin Taylor first met the band members when he was a session guitarist at Studio One. “Two or three years later, they were back in town,” he says. “Lynyrd Skynyrd had caught a hit, and Mose Jones didn’t. Jimmy left to start his own band. Randy, Steve and Bryan formed a band called Nightlife and were playing Ramada Inn lounges, just to make a living. I sat in with them one night and it was just amazing. It was like we’d been playing together forever.”

O’Neil eventually landed a spot in the band of bluegrass legend Vassar Clements, and when the drummer’s chair became open, he recommended Cole. O’Neil and Cole stayed in Nashville for several years, eventually working as songwriters for Sony/Tree Publishing. “They’d sit in a cubicle every day and write songs with people,” Taylor says.

When Cole returned to Atlanta, he again began playing with Taylor and his former Mose Jones bandmates. He also did session work, and that led to his association with Ichiban Records in 1989, which made its biggest splash in hip-hop but also released music by blues and R&B artists.

“At Ichiban, he was initially involved as a drummer,” Taylor explains. “He was in a session and at a certain point, Bryan put in his two cents worth over something. A few minutes later, he made another suggestion. The producer said, ‘Do you want to co-produce this project?’ Bryan started apologizing for butting in, but the producer said, ‘No, I’m serious.’ And Bryan became the man there.”

Cole was a staff producer at Ichiban and was put in charge of domestic publishing. He produced records by the blues artists signed to the label, including Little Johnny Taylor, Jerry McCain and Jimmy Dawkins.

But his major discovery was Francine Reed.

Lyle Lovett, Bryan Cole and Francine Reed.

FUZZY’S PLACE ON North Druid Hills Road was an old-school roadhouse bar that featured surprisingly good Cajun food. The owner initially resisted when a manager suggested adding live music to the mix; he feared it would drive away customers.

A compromise was reached and Steve McRay, fresh off the road from playing in Joan Baez’s band in 1990, was hired to play solo piano in an area of the bar where patrons usually played darts. He was soon joined by saxophonist Michael Bastedo, and it became a duo. Then Cole asked to join them one night, and Taylor soon followed. After the first night the four of them played together, the manager asked them to commit to playing every Wednesday night. “We agreed to try it once,” McRay recalls. “We wound up doing it nine or 10 years. That was the birth of our band, Java Monkey.”

Reed moved to Atlanta in 1994 from Phoenix, where she’d made her mark as a local singer in addition to touring nationally as a member of the Lyle Lovett Large Band. “I met Bryan hanging out at Fuzzy’s,” she says. “I wasn’t here a week when I saw Java Monkey and kept hoping they’d let me sit in with them.”

Bryan Cole at his familiar perch on stage at Fuzzy's Place.

It was a moment that Taylor vividly remembers. “Francine showed up the first Wednesday she was in town and sat in with us and just blew us away,” he says. “My wife and I had written a song called ‘What Is the Light?’ I needed a female vocalist for the demo because I wanted to pitch the song to Gladys Knight. Francine came to my little studio and just made that song her own. I played it for Bryan, and he couldn’t believe she’d never had a record deal.”

The next Wednesday, Reed returned to Fuzzy’s. “Bryan could see people; he could see the real person,” Reed says. “He told me, ‘I’m going to get you a record deal.’ And I’d never had a record deal. I thought, ‘Oh, sure you are.’ It took some time, but he got me a record deal.”

Reed would record four albums with Cole at the helm as producer, and Java Monkey became her backing band of choice. “Bryan was extremely intelligent,” she says. “He spoke eloquently. I love an intelligent man: ‘Mmm-huh, he’s got something going on.’ ” She laughs. “He was good-looking and a great drummer.”

As a producer, Cole was gently firm and not afraid to push an artist. Taylor remembers one artist who suffered a crisis of confidence when he came into the studio. Cole took him aside and said, “I got you here because of what you do. Go do what you do.”

“Boy, him and Francine really had a good relationship,” says Taylor. “He knew how to get the best out of her.”

Reed appreciated Cole’s role in pushing her to her best effort. “He could see more about you than you could see yourself,” she says. “I’m really going to miss that, him saying, ‘Step out there a little further, Francine.’ ”

Stuart Sullivan (from left), Freddie Fletcher, Francine Reed, Willie Nelson, Bryan Cole, Edd Miller and Curtis Clarke.

IN EARLY 2001, Jimmy O’Neil, who was a partner in Cole’s production company along with Edd Miller, died from an aggressive brain tumor. Randy Lewis, the bass player for Mose Jones, who had moved to Key West, also passed away in 2001.

Following his heart attack that same year, Cole hovered near death for nearly a month. His medical team didn’t expect him to survive. “He was always my memory bank; he remembered everything,” recalls McRay. “In 2001 he was in an induced coma for nearly a month, and they didn’t know if there would be brain damage. The first time I went to visit, I walked in and I forgot something and he immediately knew what it was. I thought, ‘Thank God.’ ”

Everything changed after Cole’s health crisis in 2001. If he was feeling good, he would still occasionally venture out and sit in with Java Monkey, playing a lone snare drum. “That snare would be the loudest thing on stage, and his groove was what we all played off of,” McRay says.

But his rehabilitation, and learning to live without one of his legs, was arduous. He was often not able to leave his condo, across the street from the Kroger on Monroe Drive. Instead, he had the world come to him.

One of the first things he did was teach himself to play guitar. He also put together a home studio, where he began to record demos of the songs he was writing. “Every Wednesday, he’d cook pizza and he and a couple of friends, Jeff Hilyer and Phil Fontana, would write songs,” Taylor says. “Then I joined and it became the Wednesday Music Group. We wanted to play out and did a couple of gigs as the Lucky Ones. At that point, Bryan just didn’t have the stamina to do drums. That group really got Bryan’s focus on writing and led to ‘Mercy Road,’ the album we released in 2008.”

Cole’s final project was working with Steve McRay to put together a live CD of Mose Jones from a tape that was found in Jimmy O’Neil’s possessions after his death. The album, “Mose Jones: Live at Richard’s,” was released in 2010.

Bryan and Lisa Cole, Thanksgiving 2012.

LAST SUMMER, I received another phone call from Bryan Cole. He invited me to visit and said he had a somewhat strange favor to ask. “I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I’ve just been given a terminal diagnosis,” he said very matter-of-factly, almost as soon as I’d sat down. While that news sank in, he explained that doctors had discovered a large aneurysm on his aorta. He’d been given no timetable; he could last six months or six years. “I don’t mean to sound macabre, but would you be willing to write my obituary?”

In July, he went to Piedmont Hospital to have heart surgery — the first of three scheduled surgeries — in an attempt to treat his condition. He went back for the second procedure after Thanksgiving and passed away on December 9.

Cole was the consummate groove master.

“I was with him on the Monday and Tuesday before he went into the hospital on Wednesday,” says McRay. “He wasn’t nervous. It was just normal, talking about stuff the way we always did. I treasure that memory. The kind of relationship we had doesn’t come along very often. Bryan touched so many people.”

“As a drummer, there’s nobody to compare him to,” Taylor declares. “He wasn’t flashy, he wasn’t splashy. He was about the groove. When Bryan couldn’t play any more, it took the creative force out of the band. We’d still play and still back Francine, but the magic of creating new stuff wasn’t there any more.”

Reed feels a deep sense of loss. “I’ll miss his laughter, his voice, his words of wisdom,” she says. “I’ll miss his sweetness. He was married to an even sweeter woman. They were matched perfectly.”

Cole met his wife, Lisa, at Fuzzy’s, where she was a waitress, and they married in 1994. “Lisa changed his life,” Taylor says. “From the very beginning, he was a different person. All of a sudden, all the pieces fit.”

Not long after he wrote “Mercy Road,” Cole invited me to his condo to hear a simple acoustic guitar demo. It was a haunting song, written about a man’s struggles to come to peace with himself, and Cole sang it with a voice that was deeply pitched, stark and poignant: “I heard about a place called Mercy Road, / Out on the edge of town. / Out on Mercy Road, / That’s where you can find me, / Out on Mercy Road, / With all my sins behind me.”

“The way I look at it, no one on his medical team thought he was going to survive in 2001,” says Taylor. “So he got 10 free years. And he made the most of them.”

Bryan Cole used that time well. He found his home on Mercy Road.

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