Omaha's Godfather of Music: Ron Cooley & His Global Adventures
Apr 15, 2020 01:28PM
By Jennifer Litton
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Mannheim Steamroller musician Ron Cooley was led to his life’s work through the guitar he found of his father’s while in high school exploring his grandparents’ house.
“I was real happy to find that guitar and I basically taught myself for most of the early years,” Cooley said.
Cooley has a master’s degree in period composition and music education from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. After nearly 50 years on the road, touring in vans, buses, commercial flights, and private jets, at age 71, he’s officially retired. Now, he plays where he wants, when he wants…which is quite often, actually.
He performs jazz before the Creighton Bluejays men’s basketball games and plays to tourists at Gorat’s during Berkshire week. On Sunday mornings, he plays in the Freedom Choir during Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
Cooley was born in South Dakota, where his father, William, attended college on the G.I. Bill after returning from World War II. The family moved to Omaha for a job and lived near 16th and Lake streets before moving to Florence. He remembers his dad riding the trolley car to work at his job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1950s.
Cooley’s music adventures took him to Guam at age 22 when his band, Pilot, played a two-month gig at a Japanese hotel during the last years of the Vietnam conflict. “There was a lot of peace and love songs. We were hippies.” He said their style didn’t go over well there. “A lot of the enlisted men liked us, but the generals wanted to put our band off limits.”
Cooley knew the owners wanted to fire the band, but they couldn’t find anyone else to replace them. “We learned a whole new repertoire while we were there. It was a unique experience,” he said.
After returning to the United States, the band broke up. He then moved to Boston and studied with jazz guitarist Mick Goodrick, but he soon returned to Omaha where, in 1974, he met Mannheim Steamroller founder Chip Davis. The duo toured the nation with country artist C.W. McCall of 1970s “Convoy” fame.
Cooley remembers when Mannheim Steamroller played in Germany in the early 1990s. “I would get up and walk the streets of whatever city we were in,” Cooley said. “It was so much fun.”
Those years were busy for him. On Mondays and Tuesdays he would teach music at Creighton University.
Todd Fink of the bands The Faint and CLOSENESS took his first guitar class with Cooley when he was a freshman at Creighton University.
“I liked it so much that I ultimately decided to major in classical guitar,” Fink said. “It was a long road. I mean, I had a lot to learn. I think the most valuable thing I learned from him was how to listen to all of the simultaneous melodies in the music and make each of them really sing.”
Fink says you can play all of the notes in a piece of music but it doesn’t really sound musical until you are hearing the components (melody, harmony, and bass) separately and understand how they relate to each other.
“The clearer your understanding, the better you can communicate the music. I still think about the music I make this same way,” he said. “Ron is a fantastic player and an ideal teacher. He taught me classical guitar, but knowing that he knew other guitar styles—blues, jazz, rock, etc., made him relatable.”
After teaching students who would soon become rock stars like Fink, Cooley would visit a different city with Mannheim Steamroller, stay for four or five days, and perform seven shows. “We did that for about five years,” Cooley said. “Then we started doing arenas.”
As Mannheim Steamroller’s fame progressed, so did their entourage. “We went from one truck to eight trucks for arenas. It was huge,” Cooley said. They played a show, then the crew loaded the trucks and moved forward. Cooley continued, “The band would get in Chip’s jet and we’d fly to do The Tonight Show or the Today show or Good Morning America.”
His still remembers the heat of volcano lava while touring Hawaii during down-time for a gig. He played a duet with the Welsh diva Charlotte Church thanks to a connection he met on the road. “It was just me and her and the orchestra,” Cooley remembered. He toured Captain Cook Cove with his wife, Christine.
He met presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush when Mannheim Steamroller played at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony. And while he’s met two different leaders of the free world, musician Doug Fackler regards Cooley in near equal stature.
“In my mind, I have him as a king, emperor, prime minister. He’s just a wonderful man,” said Fackler, former bandmate of Cooley’s in Omaha’s River City All-Stars, a popular rock band in the 1980s.
“Ron is the godfather of musicians and rock and roll,” he said.
“It seems like at Disneyworld one of the questions they ask is ‘Is that the way that Walt would have done it?’” Fackler continued. “Walt Disney had his way of doing it and it’s always put the people first and build up the talented people around you, and Ron is very similar to that. He always takes people into consideration.”
“It seems if you’re going to make a change in your band like in personnel, logically, we would say, ‘well, you’d better talk to Ron first because Ron would give you all of the inside because he’d have all the answers,” he said.
Fackler first saw Cooley play at Sandy’s Escape, a popular teenage hot spot in in Benson during the mid-1960s. “He was playing in a great band, L.A. Carnival.” Eventually the two began to play together.
“We took our acoustic guitars and played them with no borders,” Fackler said. “One of us had a tambourine on our foot and we had an old parade drum that we would use to keep beat. Just to widen things out. It was a lot of fun.”
Doug “Otis Twelve” Wesselmann, local radio legend and Omaha Magazine contributor, remembers seeing the River City All-Stars play. “They were so good,” Wesselmann said. “Such great musicianship. Ron was always amazing, as was Doug Fackler, and Richie Thieman may be the best songwriter I ever worked with. Tight.”
“Ron Cooley never plays above your ability to join him,” said broadcaster and Omaha emcee Dave Webber. “He can play any style, any kind of guitar. We were sitting out at Shirley’s Diner. We’d get together…and I said, ‘Let’s do “El Paso,” Ronnie.’”
“He goes bum bum ba bum bum, da bum, bum…and so we sing ‘El Paso’ and he does all the little guitar licks that Marty Robbins and all those guys out in L.A. did for that song and I go, ‘Oh my God,’” Webber said.
Cooley’s musical path, forged with hard work mixed with fortune, has led him to legendary status in the music world. “I like to think I’ve been very lucky because there’s not too many people that can say they’ve survived as a freelance musician and a freelance music teacher in a city this size for all these years.”
His many fans, no doubt, will keep coming to hear Ron Cooley play his guitar wherever he decides to appear.
For more information visit mannheimsteamroller.com
This article first appeared in the "60 Plus" section of the May 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine.