Longtime Nashville music executive Al Cooley died on Thursday (June 9) at age 76.
He is perhaps best known for his tenure at Combine Music, the publishing home of such Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame members as Dennis Linde, Kris Kristofferson, John Scott Sherrill, Bob DiPiero, Larry Gatlin and Bob Morrison, among others.
Cooley was also an authority on the career of Elvis Presley and had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular-music history, particularly Nashville’s. He was one of Music Row’s great characters and an intense music enthusiast. These qualities made him successful.
“He was the classic picture of a song plugger,” recalls former Combine writer Woody Bomar. “When he believed in a song he was relentless until he got it from the writer’s room to the radio.”
Born Al Bianculli, he was raised in the Bronx and retained a strong New York accent throughout his Music Row career. He first came to Nashville as a music journalist. Cooley was the editor of Zoo World: The Music Megapaper. Published in 1972-75, the bi-weekly periodical was designed as a competitor to Rolling Stone. He profiled the “Nashville underground” in a 1973 edition of Zoo World. In 1975, he wrote liner notes for Billy Swan’s album Rock ’N’ Roll Moon.
His outgoing personality appealed to the industry leaders on Music Row. He was hired by Combine in 1976, and became its widely liked song plugger. He advanced at the publishing company throughout his decade there. The staff songwriters included Bomar, Swan, Thomas Cain, Tony Joe White, Pat McManus, Debbie Hupp, Patti Ryan, Mark Germino and Tim Krekel, as well as the Hall of Famers listed above. Cain became a BMI executive. Bomar now runs Green Hills Music.
Among Al Cooley’s many accomplishments was giving future star Kathy Mattea her first recording sessions by hiring her as a Combine demo singer. In 1981, he helped David Ross launch MusicRow magazine as the periodical’s first columnist. He remained at Combine until 1986, when it was sold to SBK Entertainment (the catalog now resides at EMI).
Cooley also had stints at the MTM Music Group and at MCA Music Publishing. In 1991, he became the A&R Director at Atlantic Nashville Records. The company succeeded with Tracy Lawrence, Neal McCoy, Confederate Railroad, Robin Lee and John Michael Montgomery. He became vice president at the label in 1994.
In 2004, Cooley was named Manager of Koch Nashville’s publishing division. Koch/Audium was associated with such artists as Robert Earl Keen, Dean Miller, Gene Watson, The Tractors, Daryle Singletary, Dwight Yoakam, David Lee Murphy and John Anderson.
Cooley retired, but continued to be involved in the music business as a repertoire consultant for Tracy Lawrence and other acts.
In recent years, Al Cooley had been battling cancer. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
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