Cooper was born in Watford, Hertfordshire.
According to Cooper's bio on Elton John’s official site, in addition to percussion, Cooper studied classical piano, strings and woodwinds, as well as theater. He later joined the band Blue Mink, and as a session musician he played on records for artists such as America, Carly Simon and David Essex, among others.
Cooper has long been associated with Elton John’s career, playing on more than 90 recordings, and performing in more than 800 concerts with John both as a duo and in various band configurations. His first appearance with John was during the sessions for Madman Across the Water, and he played his first live show with him in early 1972. Cooper had a short stint with The Rolling Stones playing percussion for their 1974 It's Only Rock'n Roll album. After contributing to various Elton John albums, Cooper joined the Elton John Band full time in 1974, and spent the next two years recording and touring with the group.
During John’s semi-retirement in the late 1970s, Cooper played on various singles and albums for John, and also recorded with George Harrison, the Kinks, Wings and Art Garfunkel. In 1977 and again in 1979, Cooper toured with Elton John as a duo in which Elton would play a solo set and then be joined by Cooper on percussion for the second half of the concerts. The tour included concerts in Russia (1979), and in the course of the tour Cooper became a favorite with Elton John fans for his expressive energy and his incredible solos. Fans show up with signs for Cooper at every concert.
Cooper's relationship with the Rolling Stones continued into the 1980s. In 1981, he contributed to Bill Wyman's third solo album. In 1983, he participated in a short tour for the Ronnie Lane ARMS Charity Concert along with Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and other artists, including Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts.
In the 1980s, Cooper continued to record and tour periodically with Elton John. In 1986, he joined John’s touring band for the Tour De Force (tour) concerts in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, augmenting Jody Linscott, who was the band’s percussionist on the rest of John’s world tour.
Cooper showed up on Christine McVie's self-titled solo album in 1984. In 1985, Cooper appeared on both Mick Jagger's She's the Boss album and Bill Wyman's Willie & The Poor Boys. Also in 1985, Cooper would perform as percussionist for a number of artists during the charity event "Live Aid." In 1997, he guested with Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings for Struttin' Our Stuff.
In every tour during 1990, Eric Clapton and the band played "Sunshine of your Love", which then flowed clearly into a short one-minute drum solo by Steve Ferrone (drummer for Clapton's band on the tour), then into a 7-minute percussion solo by Ray Cooper on the tambourine, congas, and gong. In the middle of the solo he led the audience into a chant lasting about a minute, then finished the solo by shredding the conga drums with his hands, and breaking the giant gong after striking it 10 times. The band then rejoined the song, which completed the show.
He is notable for his intense, hard-working percussion and drum solos for Eric Clapton (1990), Elton John (1994–1995), in the 1992 Eric Clapton Unplugged performance, as well as playing in the 2002 Concert for George, a tribute to deceased former Beatle George Harrison (he also served as a producer of the film). In 1997, he performed at the Music for Montserrat concert and can be seen in the DVD of the event.
The success of the late 1970s "Solo" tour with Elton John was repeated in 1993–1994 when he and Elton John brought their two-man show to a new generation in the United States. During that time, Cooper was also featured as part of a Disney Channel concert telecast, A Special Evening With Elton John, recorded September 1994 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
During 1994 and 1995 "Face to Face" tours with Billy Joel, and during Elton John's tours in 1995, Elton John played "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting", which then flowed into a solo by Cooper on percussion. Cooper would perform a 7-minute percussion/drum solo, at the end of which he would complete a "360" on the drums. He would break three drum sets by repetitive, extremely fast movements, lead the audience in a chant, then strike a giant gong nine times while John closed the segment with "Pinball Wizard". In the 1995 "Evening With Elton John and Ray Cooper" tour, the two men performed in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Costa Rica, where Elton performed a solo set, then was joined by Cooper on percussion for the second half of the show.
He contributed to the tribute concert for Jim Capaldi in January 2007. He also worked on Katie Melua's album Pictures (2007).
Towards the end of the 1980s, Cooper got involved in film as a musician, actor and producer, including movies for Handmade Films, which was owned by his friend George Harrison.
He has played small roles such as the preacher in Robert Altman's feature film Popeye (1980) starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall. He has also performed music in several of Terry Gilliam's productions, appearing on-screen in quirky roles like the technician who swats the beetle at the beginning of Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil and as the functionary whispering in the ear of Jonathan Pryce's Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson character in 1989's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He also appeared in the "Concert for Cascara" in the 1985 film Water, and appears as a street commercial for The Zero Theorem.
The role of Albert Arthur Moxey in the hit television series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was written for Cooper by friends Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, with the character originally being conceived as an Irishman, after Cooper expressed an interest in becoming an actor. The role was however given to Christopher Fairbank, who opted to play him as a scouser, due to Cooper being unable to make it to the audition. The character of Moxey was given only limited lines and screentime in the first series of "Pet" due to Cooper's acting inexperience.
Cooper has continued recording and performing with Elton John on various albums and tours, including John's The Million Dollar Piano show in Las Vegas. In September 2009, John and Cooper performed a small exclusive series of shows, mostly in the UK and Europe, the first time since 1995 that the two had toured together without a band. In a greeting to Cooper on his 70th birthday, John’s website stated that when Elton composed the song “Tambourine” for his 2016 Wonderful Crazy Night album, he made sure to bring in Cooper to play the instrument on the track.
Cooper is known to have played tambourine, congas, bongos, cymbals, wind chimes, bell tree, triangle, timpani, bells, tubular bells, shaker, vibraphone, marimba, gong, Rototoms, jaw bone, cowbell, finger cymbals, timbales, crotales, guiro, glockenspiel, whistle, drums and snare drum.