Whey Cooler, one half of the ’80s-famous duo Pretty Poison, can finally start swallowing again. That happened in the last week to 10 days. Same with being able to chew gum. He even just got back from performing in California this weekend, his body still ravaged from cancer but not in the disastrous shape it was in a couple months ago.
“I likened the feeling in my throat,” he said, “to having swallowed a fan and the blades were stuck in the back of my throat.”
Cooler was diagnosed with throat cancer in January. Tonight, radio personality Bob Pantano is hosting a benefit concert for him at 7 at the Adelphia Restaurant and Nightclub in South Jersey, and he’s received $10,000 in donations through a GoFundMe page. He’s expected to fully recover, but the disease hasn’t been the ideal way to ring in what should be a celebratory year for him and bandmate Jade Starling. Thirty years ago, they released “Catch Me I’m Falling,” taking Pretty Poison from an underground favorite in Philly to No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on Billboard’s dance charts.
The song’s popularity was due in part to its crossover appeal. Pretty Poison’s big hit was as beloved by the gay community and the black community as it was by the stereotypical ’80s yuppie crowd, the attention for a duo Starling describes as “kids with the big hair and goth makeup.” They had a sound inspired from R&B and pushed forward by an electronic kick that was only starting to be explored at the time.
“We were EDM,” Starling said, “before it was called EDM.”
In the early 1980s, Whey Cooler was looking for a singer. He and his brother had started a rock-oriented band and heard about Starling from other classmates at Camden Vocational Technical School. They had seen a 1968 movie called “Pretty Poison” about a high school cheerleader who turns into a murderer and went with the name for their group.
“It was absolutely nothing like us,” Starling said. “It was just kind of a cool idea: You use what you got to get what you want. I think the music was more intriguing to us, the sound. It was very mysterious and had a romantic background.”
At first, Pretty Poison’s sound was more rock-oriented. But Cooler realized that “if you weren’t willing to drop everything and move to England like the Stray Cats did” it would be difficult for them to find success outside of Philly’s underground scene. At the time, he was listening to R&B radio and noticed how the latest tracks would have hints of electronica and syncopation. Cooler wanted to push Pretty Poison in that direction.
In 1984, the band recorded “Nighttime,” which reached No. 14 on the dance charts. They became major players at venues like The Empire in the Northeast and the East Side Club, located at 12th and Chestnut, and would do the occasional show in Miami, where dance music was thriving. They could command a crowd of 300 to 500 easily but weren’t a major act yet.
About the time the fame from “Nighttime” subdued, Cooler purchased a new keyboard. It was a Roland D-50 and set him back $2,000, a fortune for a starving musician in the 1980s. With Prince and similar influences on his mind, he started tinkering around with a bass line and came up with an early version of the “Catch Me I’m Falling” beat.
Originally, he thought Pretty Poison might give the beat to an R&B singer. Then the band got studio time with Kajen Records and shortly after with Kaye Williams Jr. Cooler and Williams spent about 24 hours mixing a newer version, and Starling added her vocals. The band played the song at a showcase where a representative from the Philly hit radio station WCAU-98 happened to be listening.
“They were looking for somebody to get behind that was local that they could help bring more national attention to,” Cooler said. “That was the song they wanted to get behind. It’s the kind of story that you hear but think that’s never going to happen to me. But here it is happening to me. Every time it looked like it was going to run out of steam something would come out of nowhere and give us another five to 10 weeks of life.
At least in Philadelphia, you couldn’t escape hearing “Catch Me.” Virgin Records’ Iris Dillon realized this when she visited the city and heard the song within a few minutes at every club she attended. Pretty Poison was signed and soon was enjoying national success. By late 1987, “Catch Me I’m Falling” reached No. 8 and appeared in the Jon Cryer movie Hiding Out.
Pretty Poison’s diverse success is apparent in the awards they’ve won and the shows on which they performed. Pretty Poison played Entertainment Tonight and American Bandstand (Dick Clark said, “We got hometown folks with us…This is a great, great sounding group, and I hope, I can’t begin to tell you all the good luck I wish them”). They also appeared on Soul Train and Arsenio Hall.
Pretty Poison left Virgin in the early 1990s feeling its creativity was stifled. The band continued performing and recording together and Starling launched a solo career. Cooler continued his work as a producer and was one of the first people to work with Eve. He’s also collabed with Freeway, Eric B and Capone.
“We have amazing pinch-me moments,” Starling said. “Then of course there are those moments you’re not getting the gigs, you’re not being appreciated or whatever.”
And then there’s the nightmare Cooler woke up to a few months ago. He noticed a lump on his neck while shaving last fall. Several doctors trips followed before a specialist finally gave him the diagnosis: Stage 4 throat cancer, brought on through HPV that had been lying dormant for several years.
“Found out on January 18,” Cooler said. “Jade’s birthday is January 19. That was a weird birthday gift for her.”
Cooler went through aggressive radiation treatment from February through April, his weight dropping from 196 to 153 pounds. He can now barely taste anything.
The good news is from the beginning he was given a 70- to 80-percent chance at full recovery. He’ll know in August whether the radiation eradicated the disease but can’t feel any evidence of the tumor on his neck.
Cooler, who has plans of starting an organization called Party2Life to raise awareness for HPV-related cancer, has still been able to work in his studio and go on the road. This is the 30th anniversary of “Catch Me,” and he and Starling had carved out an extensive touring schedule. Cooler’s goal was to be healthy in time for a California performance in early May and made it.
Tonight is the show the duo didn’t expect to have or want to have. But Pretty Poison will be at the Adelphia Restaurant and Club in South Jersey performing as a benefit for Cooler. He and Jade Starling will be on stage and it will be like 1987 all over again.