"Take your time, take your time..."
Those instructions were directed towards me and the other musicians at Electric Lady studios, seconds before the tape was about to roll. More like words of wisdom preached from the late great guitarist and studio musician extraordinaire CORNELL DUPREE.
When thinking about Cornell Dupree, what comes to mind is his trademark Fender Telecaster guitar and pipe; which makes me wonder how ironic if the latter contributed to his passing due to emphysema. Also a Fender Telecaster player at the time, thanks to Mr. Dupree, I asked why he switched and favored a Yamaha guitar over Fender. Cornell, somewhat of comedic person, said he was currently endorsing Yamaha guitars. Continuing he added, the company had guitar spies making sure he played their instrument exclusively or he could never go back to Japan, ever. I just cracked up listening to him explain this with a straight face.
I remember seeing a PBS broadcast of the Montreux jazz festival with King Curtis and Champion Jack Dupree performing. There's also a GREAT live recording available (Blues At Montreux). I own a copy on vinyl somewhere at home. Watching the guitarist, I remember thinking to myself; how cool is this guy? At 18 I knew music was pivotal in my life but still focused on how to turn it into a living. Fame and fortune are great but as far as I was concerned fame and fortune could have been two people who lived next door. I guess being an earth sign kept my head out of the clouds (sometimes). Also, I had to do something after college...but what? "Ladies and gentleman Cornell Dupree." With my eyes clued to the TV, his performance summed up everything.
In my estimation Cornell Dupree had it all. Here was this man looking ultra cool on stage, television and most important, yes playing the guitar. I'd like that job any day. Researching, I needed to learn if this new discovery would be my latest "guitar hero."
At one point this man played on just about every hit record on the radio and on records that became staples in music history. It's harder to name artist's he didn't record with than those he did. In naming a few you'll have Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack, Mariah Carey, Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, Miles Davis and Lena Horn you get the point. Cornell Dupree was the star behind the stars. I inquire who he'd like to play for, his face now beaming he replies Ray Charles. I know on the record Aretha Franklin Live at Fillmore west Cornell is part of the backing band when Ray Charles makes a cameo appearance. Other than this I'm not sure he ever recorded with Ray Charles but I know he wanted to. Steve Jordan, drummer and producer, introduced me to Cornell around the late '70's. By this time I was well versed on who the "gun for hire" from Fort Worth Texas was; as Cornell referred to himself. Steve and I had been friends for sometime. Early in our careers we played together on a few small gigs. Steve has an innate gift of hearing a song once then playing it back with all the right breaks. I've witnessed this on many occasion. In addition he's got this "killer groove" that makes the music feel good. These gifts found Steve to be one of New York's premier session drummers early on .
The corner building on 97th street and Columbus avenue in New York city housed a jazz club called Mikell's. It operated from 1969 to 1991. Every serious musician during this time knew of Mikell's. Whether you played or hung out there it was one of the main if not the main place to be. Steve and I went to hear a band named Stuff. They were a six piece super group comprised of top notch studio musicians, New York's finest. When they played Mikell's, which they did often you could hardly get in. Movie stars, models, famous athletes all in attendance witnessing Stuff's blend of musical magic. In it's midst perched on a bar stool located on a tiny stage was; you guessed it Cornell Dupree. His appearance was far more than fitting for this elite ensemble.
During the break Steve suggested we go downstairs to say hello. By now he'd known these guys fairly well. When Stuff became the backing band for Joe Cocker Steve sometimes covered for their regular drummer Steve Gadd or Chris Parker. Downstairs at Mikells had multi-purposes; office, storage, dressing room and a place where musicians and friends would conjugate. Mostly conjugating where you'd tune up downstairs before you tuned up on stage. Steve shared with me his first experience on the tour bus with Stuff and Joe Cocker. Concerned about a few things Steve had questions on what to expect. Steve being younger was reassured everything was fine. "Don't worry" they told him, "relax." "It's gonna be great." He asked if he'd get the chance to rehearse before the show. "Sure" they tell him. "We're heading there now." During this exchange he smells something burning... looking up he realizes they're already at the show. Jokingly they tell Steve the bus ride was the rehearsal and they're all tuned up. Steve, I'm sure played well that night.
Meeting Cornell Dupree was like meeting a musical folklore legend. Memories of those amazing stories about Chuck Rainy, King Curtis and their extraordinary sessions shall remain. Never really close yet feeling regret for losing contact; I was totally unaware of his impact on my life until his passing. In remembering Cornell Dupree I've learned about blues great Albert Collins and the influence Collins' music had on Dupree. I was informed that he called his guitar fills "little diddle-daddles." I'd study Cornell's right hand guitar technique where he'd tickle the strings with his middle finger. Adapting his use of the pinkie to turn the volume knob, obtaining his signature crying sound also came in handy.
For me the highlight of it all was one single phone call. A record producer had called me for a three week recording session. "By the way" he said "you'll be playing this date along side Cornell Dupree." That session was more than 30 years ago. However, as a result of that session I'm sure evidence will prove Mr. Cornell Dupree is part of my musical DNA.