Barbara Cook: The 60 Minutes interview

Mike Wallace's story about the rise and fall --- and rise again -- of a glorious performer, Barbara Cook, who died this week at 89

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access

This week, the legendary singer Barbara Cook died at the age of 89. Mike Wallace and producer Jay Kernis interviewed the Broadway star for 60 Minutes in 2001, and this is their story:

This is a tale about the rise and fall, and rise again, of a glorious performer, Barbara Cook, who has seen it all and triumphed against troubles, and who still has, at the age of 74, in the words of a New York Times critic, "The most magnificent voice in popular music."  Listen and see if you don't agree.


And has she ever. Forty-four years ago, Barbara Cook was the toast of Broadway, originating the role of Marian the librarian in the hit show "The Music Man."

She was the hometown girl who won the heart of the fast-talking con man, played by Robert Preston, and she won a Tony Award for it.

Mike Wallace: 1957-'58...

Barbara Cook: Yes.

She also appeared in productions of "Oklahoma," "Carousel," "Plain and Fancy," "Candide," and "She Loves Me." It was glorious fulfillment for her because, as a youngster growing up in Atlanta, that was all Barbara Cook ever wanted to do.

Barbara Cook: I can't remember when I didn't sing.  I sang for my family. And I think probably the first time I sang and got paid for it, I was about six or seven. On Saturday afternoons, there was a film, of course, and then we did about four shows between the films.  And I would do a tap dance, a little military tap.  

Barbara Cook teaches a master class at New York's Juilliard School, 2001.  CBS News

In 1948, on a visit to New York City with her mother, she made her big move.

Mike Wallace: And you were 20 years old?

Barbara Cook: Mm-hmm.

Mike Wallace: And then you told your mother to go back home and you were going to stay?

Barbara Cook: Yes.

Mike Wallace: So I've got to believe that you knew when you left Georgia...

Barbara Cook: I was going to stay. I knew that.

She paid her bills by working as a typist, and she kept on trying, auditioning. And finally, within just three years, she got herself a lead role in a Broadway show; got great reviews, but the show turned out to be a flop.

Mike Wallace: Back then, slim, blonde, pretty, sexy?

Barbara Cook: I never thought so. I--thank goodness some people thought so. I never thought so.

Mike Wallace: Why didn't you think that you were sexy?

Barbara Cook: I don't know.  I look back at photographs and I remember at the time I thought I was not very attractive.  And I'd look and I'd think, "You must have been out of your mind.  You know, you looked great."

Along the way, she married a comedian, name of David Legrant, and they had a son.  But she and Legrant divorced in 1965 and it was around this time in the mid-'60s that somehow her career began to slow almost to a halt.  And that, it turns out, was when she began to gain a lot of weight.

Barbara Cook, 2001. CBS News

Barbara Cook: If you're happy, you eat. If you're sad, you eat. You lose a job, you eat. You get a job, you eat.  It's, you know, it's addiction.

Mike Wallace: And drinking.

Barbara Cook: Yeah. That had played a big part in my life.

Mike Wallace: I read what you wrote about it. You'd say, "Oh, I can't do this anymore," and you'd pour bottles down the drain...

Barbara Cook: Yes.

Mike Wallace: …And then go out and get another bottle.

Barbara Cook: Yeah, I did that for years.  I stopped drinking because my body simply would not do it anymore.  And fortunately, when I saw that I might not be able to work, that did it for me.

Mike Wallace: It was in the mid-'60s that you said..."Here I am, the quintessential ingénue, but past her prime, overweight, and I didn't know where to aim myself."

Barbara Cook: Yeah, I remember feeling that. I couldn't do, nor did I want to do, the kinds of roles I'd been doing.  And another thing was, "Oh, well, I can't work until I lose weight," and so forth and so on. It's a good thing I didn't wait for that.

Mike Wallace: Well, January 26th, 1975, Carnegie Hall.

Barbara Cook: Yeah. Oh, God, what a night that was.

Mike Wallace, Barbara Cook and Broadway music arranger Wally Harper, 2001. CBS News

And Barbara Cook was suddenly reborn.  When the recording of that legendary concert was released, her fans lined up to take home what they'd been missing. The accompanist who helped her put together that Carnegie Hall concert, and all that followed, was veteran Broadway music arranger Wally Harper.

Wally Harper: So "the glitches are getting in that."

Barbara Cook: Yeah.

For 27 years, she's been coming to his Manhattan apartment to rehearse.

Barbara Cook: What?

Wally Harper: "And then I'll holler..."

Barbara Cook: Those aren't the words I thought came next.

They say it's not unlike a marriage.

Wally Harper: We won't fight now like we do sometimes, but we'll behave and get--no, we don't fight a lot, but, you know, sometimes.

With Barbara no longer in demand for Broadway musicals, Harper has guided her in what has turned out to be her second career, as a cabaret and concert performer.

If you've begun to see why people fall in love with her, you're in good company.  Anthony Hopkins, who acknowledges that he too had his problems with alcohol, is a big fan.

Anthony Hopkins: And we had a lot of stuff in common and we both had been through the mill, and been through our particular bad times, and she talked, I think, quite freely about it.

Mike Wallace: She does.

Anthony Hopkins: And then it was my 60th birthday and I thought, "wouldn't it be great if I had a singer to come and entertain us all?"  And the first person came to my mind was Barbara Cook.

Mike Wallace: What is special? What is extraordinary about Barbara Cook's voice?

Anthony Hopkins: Well, when I saw her in London, it was in a big space, I remember, but she seemed to touch you directly.  And that's what happened in the party that I had.  She's singing directly to you.  It's a weird, strange technique, or magic, whatever you want to call it.  I think all the great artists have that.  They have a personal effect on you.  You think that they're singing to you.

At the root of her appeal is her willingness to lay bare her emotions.

Barbara Cook: What actors need to do is to find a way to show people their despair, their joy, their pain, their exhilaration. All of these deep, deep emotional things--good and bad--so that if you're able to do that, then there's a kind of resonance that happens.

Mike Wallace: There's a chemistry that develops between you and the audience.

Barbara Cook:  Yes, something occurs between cores, you know?  My core to your core.  I don't know how else to say that.

For some 20 years now she's been trying to help young singers find their core by teaching master classes. She admonishes them, "Simply be yourself."

Barbara Cook: I think sometimes when we do what we consider "performing," it's a way of hiding.

Here she is at New York's Juilliard School.

Barbara Cook: OK. The message is more about, "I can sing," than about what you're trying to tell her. Young people who are just starting out somehow need to let you know they know how to sing.  So the message becomes, "Look, I can sing."  And, "Fine.  OK. So you can sing.  What are you going to do with it?"

Barbara Cook: Can we stop, Daniel?

So sometimes Cook resorts to extreme measures.

Barbara Cook: Do you know what this song is about?

Daniel:  How being close to me just puts this feeling inside me.

Barbara Cook: It's about sex. Come here.

Barbara Cook: I do that partially for shock value.

Daniel:  Whoo.

Barbara Cook: And also because I think it's true. Think of it, if you can get inside the power of a moment like that, and really be inside of the moment and not worry about what you're looking like and what you're sounding like, but we'll know something's going on. And it'll be authentic, it'll be real.

But it becomes apparent that it's difficult for most of the Julliard students to break ingrained habits and quickly adjust.

Barbara Cook: You know, I just don't believe it. I just don't believe it. Let's see. You know, you really don't have--honest to God, you do not have the life experience to really, really sing this song.  But I think you have enough so that we can get past this singing thing a bit.

And almost like a therapist, she tries to get them to reach the deep, genuine feeling behind the lyrics.

Barbara Cook: The very place where safety lies for us is the thing that seems most dangerous, and that is having the courage to let people really, really into what life has done to us.

And then to end the class, Cook shows just what life has done to her.

So, at 74, is she thinking about retiring?

Mike Wallace: I'm almost 10 years older than you...

Barbara Cook: Oh, no.

Mike Wallace  ...and I'm not going to quit.  What about you?

Barbara Cook: I have absolutely no desire and no thought of quitting ever. Even within the last three or four years, I have a greater ability to communicate, I think. I have more courage to show the stuff.

Mike Wallace: To undress yourself.

Barbara Cook: Yes, and it does take courage. It does take courage.