Cooper was born at Westbury-on-Trym, near Bristol, England. He was educated at Clifton College, and then at Keble College, Oxford, where he was an organ scholar. During the 1930s he worked initially as a church organist and piano teacher before joining the GPO Film Unit, where he wrote incidental music for documentaries, including Mony a Pickle (1938) and A Midsummer Day's Work (1939). Here his colleagues included the poet W. H. Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten. He had already embarked on a promising career as a concert pianist when the outbreak of World War II forced him to give up the concert platform for the duration of hostilities. He resumed his career in 1946, studying briefly with Egon Petri and making his London debut in 1947. As a concert pianist, Cooper made a number of successful recordings (including some for the World Record Club), and also began broadcasting on radio. In 1946 he assisted Ralph Vaughan Williams in arranging the latter's Piano Concerto for two pianos.
In 1954 he accepted an invitation to work on the BBC radio quiz show Call the Tune. In 1967 the show transferred to television under the title Face the Music. Transmitted on BBC2 and repeated on BBC1, it ran until 1979 and was briefly revived in 1983-4. The show kept Cooper in the public eye, and the "Hidden Melody" round, a regular feature of the show in which he improvised in the style of a composer and cloaked a well-known tune in his elaborate extemporization, served as a vehicle for his great pianistic talent. Face the Music also featured the Dummy Keyboard, in which Cooper played a well-known piano piece on a silent keyboard and the panel had to identify it. The music was gradually faded in for viewers at home. The panellists included Joyce Grenfell, Robin Ray (who had an encyclopedic memory for opus numbers, etc.), and occasionally Bernard Levin.
During the 1960s, Cooper occasionally appeared as one of the presenters of Here Today, a daily 15-minute light current affairs programme broadcast by the independent company TWW, which served South Wales and the West of England. He became known for his acerbic, rather irascible interviewing style and for the fact that he regularly played out the programme with a gentle piano piece.
Cooper was awarded the OBE in 1982. He was married twice, first to Jean Greig from 1947 until her death in 1973, and then Carol Borg, from 1975 until her death in 1996.
- Radio Times, 1954-1984.
- Obituary of Joseph Cooper, Independent Newspaper, 15 August 2001.
Independent obituary text