What was Alice Cooper like in high school? Friends and bandmates share their stories

Ed Masley
Arizona Republic

Long before he topped the U.K. pop charts with the anthem that remains the quintessential ode to summer break, Alice Cooper knew exactly how it felt to be stuck in a classroom dreaming of that final bell that can only mean school's out for summer.

He wasn't known as Alice Cooper to his classmates.

He was still Vince Furnier, the preacher's son who made his first onstage appearance in the Cortez High School cafetorium in Phoenix, alongside future bassist Dennis Dunaway and guitarist Glen Buxton as the Earwigs. 

It was 1964 when he and Dunaway, who ran track and cross country together, talked the Letterman's Club into letting them do a set of Beatles parodies at a talent show the lettermen were hosting. 

They even picked up matching Beatle wigs at Woolworths, the first of many theatrical touches they would go on to adopt. 

'It was a perfect creative machine':An oral history of Alice Cooper's 'Killer' at 50

Alice's ambition: 'A million record seller'

By the time of Cooper's high school graduation in the spring of 1966, the Earwigs had become the Spiders and were gigging at the VIP, a popular teen club at Seventh Street and Indian School Road.

In his senior yearbook, Cooper modestly lists his ambition as "a million record seller."

As it turns out, he's sold way more than a million records.

"If you looked at every single kid in that entire school — 3,000 or so — you never ever would've picked Alice to be a lead singer," Dunaway says with a laugh.

"He had a nasally voice. He didn't stand up entirely straight. Both of us were skinny as rails. But he did have this charisma. He could talk to anybody. He watched television all the time and no matter what subject came up, Alice was your best friend."

Read more: How 5 friends from Phoenix came to rule the world as Alice Cooper

Making friends with Dennis Dunaway

Cooper and Dunaway met in art class. 

"Alice was 15; I was 16," Dunaway recalls. 

Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway as high school kids in a photo booth.

"He was the really skinny little nerd kid with the big nose. And we became friends."

There was a lot of talent in that art class.

But as Dunaway recalls, "I was the only one that cared about Salvador Dali and the pop art movement, Dada and all that. Here comes this young kid and we're talking about, 'Hey yeah, Magritte.' We hit it off immediately."

Dunaway talked his new friend into joining the cross country team.

"We were nerds, but we had the respect of the football players and the other jocks," he says. "They respected the fact that our team was undefeated in our division and the fact that we'd go out and run in Arizona heat to do that."

Dunaway laughs, then adds, "We were maybe one rung up the ladder of popularity from the badminton team."

Interview: Dennis Dunaway on life with Alice Cooper

'He was the guy that had no enemies'

Another quality that soon became apparent was the singer's flair for spinning yarns. 

"He had already mastered the ability to enhance a story," Dunaway says.

"It got to a point where Glen and I would be listening to Alice tell somebody something that happened. And Glen would say, 'Oh, 35,' which meant that story is 35% enhanced. But everybody liked him. He was the guy that had no enemies."

Cooper was born in Detroit and moved around a lot before the family came to Phoenix.

"His sister Nicki said when they were kids, they moved so much, she got really torn up, making friends and then having to leave them all the time," Dunaway says. 

"So she learned to deal with that by not making friends. She would stay to herself and figure, 'If I don't make any friends, I won't have any sad goodbyes.'"

Her brother took the opposite approach. 

"Everybody was his friend no matter where he went," Dunaway says. "So leaving this group of friends didn't affect him. He's just going somewhere where there's more friends."

And making friends came easily to Cooper.

"He wouldn't go over and try to get people interested in his stories," Dunaway says. 

"He just would sit where he was. And like a magnet, he would attract the other people to wherever he was in the room."

Don't miss out! Your guide to all the biggest concerts playing Phoenix this July

Making music 'like Salvador Dali'

Around the time they met, in 1963, Dunaway went to see a double feature — "Hercules Unchained" and Disney's "Peter Pan" at the Fox Theatre in downtown Phoenix. 

"In between, Duane Eddy and the Rebels played. And I said, 'That's what I want to do.'"

It didn't take much effort to get his friend on board with the idea.

"We're in art class talking about, 'Let's make it like Salvador Dali,'" Dunaway recalls. 

Then the British Invasion hit.

"The Beatles had the top 10 singles on the AM charts in Phoenix," Dunaway says. "And that's when we said, 'OK, We're definitely starting a band now.'"

The next thing they knew they were talking the Letterman's Club into letting them take part in the talent show.

"We weren't allowed to compete because we were lettermen," Dunaway says. "But we could still do this surprise performance."

The jocks weren't wild about these long-haired guys from Liverpool. But Cooper had a flair for talking people into things. 

"So he said, 'OK, here's the angle. We're gonna pretend we're making fun of them, doing a spoof of the Beatles,'" Dunaway recalls. "And they liked that. 'OK, we'll let you do it. But it had better be good.'"

The only problem was that neither one of them could play an instrument.

She called herself rock's first side chick.Why Duane Eddy's Phoenix guitarist was so much more

Recruiting guitarist Glen Buxton 

"There was a kid in class, Glen Buxton, who looked like kind of a tough guy to us, but we'd heard that he had a guitar. So we said, 'Hey, we're gonna do this thing. You want to play guitar for it?'"

Buxton, who died in 1997 at the age of 49, said he'd give it a shot and brought his guitar to school.

"When he opened the case, we thought, 'Oh, my God! This is like looking at the Holy Grail or something here! He's got a real guitar!'" Dunaway says with a laugh. 

Cooper borrowed his dad's ukulele. Dunaway borrowed his father's acoustic.

A fellow classmate who went on to be their drummer, John Speer, pretended to play a guitar while another letterman, Phil Wheeler, played cymbal and snare — "with the understanding," Dunaway says, "that he wasn't an official part of our spoof."

Alice Cooper playlist:30 best songs by the group that gave you 'School's Out'

The Earwigs invasion hits Cortez High

In the meantime, they were hyping their performance in the student paper.

"Alice and I were both on the journalism staff and writing stories for the paper," Dunaway says. "So using Alice's talent for exaggeration, we were telling stories of the Earwigs from Cesspool, England."

They did three four or songs at that talent show.

"Then the curtain closed and everybody's laughing," Dunaway recalls.

"We're looking at each other going, 'Oh, my God! This is amazing! We've got to be a real band now.' So that's how it started. We quickly decided what instruments we wanted to play. I was the last to decide so I ended up with bass."

Soon, they were honing their craft in study hall, the cafetorium, wherever. 

"All the kids would be having their sloppy joes for lunch in the cafetorium, the curtain would open and it would be the Earwigs," Dunaway says.

"We were kind of relentless. Every time a school paper came out, there'd be some new adventure that the Earwigs had. We presented ourselves as a joke. But the girls were looking at us a little bit more than they were before. So it was good."

Alice Cooper band's record-store reunion movie is coming out. Here's how to get it

'Screaming like they're the Beatles'

Buxton's kid sister, Janice, says she was 11 or 12 when the Earwigs started showing up at their house for rehearsal. 

"Glen didn't bring too many friends around until he started hanging out with these lettermen people," she says. 

Vince Furnier photo from the Cortez High School Yearbook

"Then, all of a sudden, they're filling up our garage with instruments. And me and my girlfriends are standing there screaming like they're the Beatles."

Those rehearsals often drew a crowd outside the Buxton home.

"Sometimes they would have to close the garage door," Janice says. "The police would show up."

She enjoyed hanging out at rehearsals, where her brother's new friends often sent her off to write down lyrics for the latest cover they were learning.

"They were always very funny," she says. "No matter what they were doing, you wanted to be there because they were funny. That's what makes me smile the most when I think about those times."

At the same time, she adds, "They were all pretty serious about practicing and sounding good." 

Asked if she thought they'd make it big, she says, "Of course. Glen was an accomplished guitar player already. He'd taken lessons for years. So he was teaching the other guys. And they all caught on pretty quick. Or they pretended really well."

'The party that never ended': An oral history of Alice Cooper's 'Love it to Death' at 50

'All of a sudden, we were a real band'

By Halloween of 1964, the Earwigs had gotten good enough to play the Cortez Halloween dance, surrounded by props.

They'd fashioned coffins and tombstones from refrigerator boxes and giant spider webs from clothesline. A friend's dad even helped them build a guillotine.

"The kids liked us," Dunaway says of his classmates. 

"But they didn't take us seriously. Not nearly as seriously as we envisioned ourselves. That all changed when we landed a gig at the most popular club, the VIP. Then all of a sudden we were a real band."

Buxton and Dunaway graduated in 1965, a year before their singer.

In 1966, they recorded the regional radio hit, "Don't Blow Your Mind," by which point Michael Bruce, a North High football player, had replaced John Tatum on guitar. 

Bruce recalls thinking of Cooper as "an All-American kid but very campy."

Coldplay shot a puppet show at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.Here's why

To the Spidermobile!

Mike "Amp Boy" Allen met the Spiders during Cooper's senior year.

Buxton had set up a meeting at Chris-Town Mall to talk about bringing him on as a roadie now that they were getting more gigs. Allen owned a 1960 Plymouth Fury station wagon soon to be christened the Spidermobile.

"They started talking about their hopes and dreams and how they wanted to move to L.A. and become a big band and have a hit record," Allen says.

"And I kind of got hooked, because they sounded so convincing. Especially Alice. He would've made a great used car salesman, because he had me believing we could all do this together."

Allen says Cooper was very congenial.

"I don't think he ever let the facts get in the way of a story," Allen says. 

"But he was very self-assured. He knew what he wanted. And he had the ability to make people feel like they were his best friend, even though they'd never met."

From 'Pretties for You' to 'Detroit Stories.' Ranking the best Alice Cooper albums

Becoming Alice Cooper

After changing their name to the Nazz, the Spiders and Amp Boy moved to Los Angeles, where Neal Smith, a Camelback High grad who'd been in art classes with Dunaway, Cooper and Buxton at Glendale Community College, replaced John Speer on drums.

Adopting Alice Cooper as a name for both the singer and the band, they recorded two albums for Frank Zappa's label before finding their George Martin in a young producer named Bob Ezrin.

In 1971, they scored their first radio hit with "I'm Eighteen" and reached a new high the following year with "School's Out."

Released in late April, "School's Out" peaked at No. 7 on the Hot. 100, climbing six spots higher in the U.K.

The "School's Out" album followed in late June, containing several tracks inspired by their high school days.

Phoenix roots of 'School's Out' album

"Alma Mater" name-checks Cortez and Smith's alma mater, Camelback, as well as a Cortez teacher named Miss Axelrod.

"Now I don't think Miss Axelrod was much impressed," Cooper sings. 

And she usually wasn't.

"Miss Axelrod was our chemistry and biology teacher," Dunaway says.

"She was rather petite. But man, you were afraid of her. If you had stayed out too late doing a gig or something and you were starting to turn into that kid that's drooling on his desk in 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off,' she would all of a sudden scream, 'Enthusiasm!'"

Dunaway recalls Miss Axelrod's reaction to the Earwigs' first performance at the talent show.

"As we were coming off the stage — and that was the very first time we had ever been on stage — she said, 'You should be on Ed Sullivan.'"

Dunaway laughs at the memory, then adds, "She was joking, of course."

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.