by Perry Meisel
Joe Cocker sang from the killing floor last week at Mikell's, where he and some of New York's greatest soul sessionmen have been preparing for a major tour effort scheduled to begin in North Carolina early next month. Also coming in the next month is Cocker's first album release in more than a year, recorded mostly in Jamaica with the New York studio crew and now awaiting last-minute vocal dubs and mixing at the Record Plant. Though Cocker weaved in and out of full attention about as steadily as he weaved between the chairs at Mikell's last Thursday, his voice still moaned thick and lustrous from his twisted and pouting body while mind-blown customers breezed in and out of this undiscovered West Side music spot with plenty to run home and tell their friends about.
The surreptitiousness of Cocker's arrival here two weeks ago helped to maintain the embarrassed silence that has shrouded his career since the old rumors of personal and vocal troubles intensified over the course of his 1974 American tour. Hopes are, though, that he's now close enough to the straight and narrow to survive a grueling, five-nights-a-week schedule.
But it's really the band that will make the difference. It's nothing less than a who's who of soul sessionland past and present: guitarists Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale, bassist and bandleader Gordon Edwards, drummer Steve Gadd, and keyboardist Richard Tee. Even if Cocker has trouble keeping it together on the road, these Original Doctors of Sound will keep halls bellydancing with the kind of stoned soul music they've been playing for years in the studio behind a list of collective credits that bulges as big as the eye that reads it - Aretha Franklin, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Butler, King Curtis, David Ruffin, the Stylistics, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, David Newman. They are the north end of a network of rhythm and blues musicians that reaches up from Muscle Shoals and Memphis all the way to New York. These are the true heroes of the last decade of American pop music (add, too, the names of Chuck Rainey, Gerald Jemmott, Roger Hawkins, Bernard Purdie, for starters) and they've gone largely unnoticed.
If you remember what "Memphis Soul Stew" sounded like, then you've got a pretty fair idea of what these guys sound like now. They've been digging that loose, pumping groove every weeknight at Mikell's for the last six months, and off and on for a year or so before that. They come in after full days in the studio downtown and they come in to play, jamming mostly on soul standards like "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" or "Heard It Through the Grapevine." You sit there shucking in your seat till your eyes buzz out at four a.m. when you decide it's finally time to drag yourself home.
The secret of the sound lies where you'd least expect it: in the silence and space that lets the melody breathe through the beat. Gordon Edwards likes to compare this strategy to the way defensive linemen block and open up spaces for the ball-carrier. "We may not score ourselves," he says, laughing, "but we're always on the winning side."
But even in a crew this heavy it's Cornell Dupree who threatens to steal the show. Perched high and cool on his swivel seat at the rear of the bandstand with his pipe curling blue fumes around his head, Cornell lays claim to a consummate definition of sweet soul guitar. He breaks your heart the way he breaks the beat, splitting and stuttering double-stopped chords over the back of the rhythm with a lazy restraint that puts all but the Croppers and the Bensons on permanent notice that his is the last word on the subject of soul.
It's taken some time for most of us to realize that the rock music that blew our minds in the '60s was in many ways an interpretation of the kind of music these guys have been playing all their lives. The rhythm and blues revival that stared up in rock about three or four years ago validated that perception when a number of preeminent English rockers - chief among them Winwood, McCartney, and Rod Stewart - started recording on native American ground with roots musicians. Cocker's extended venture with New York's veteran soulmen, after his long commitment to L.A.'s rock pros, comes as the latest in this series of rockers turning to the Original Doctors for counsel and collaboration. If you're lucky you can catch Cocker with the band tonight or tomorrow (February 25 and 26) at Mikell's. "We'll probably be here," says Cornell Dupree, "till a half-hour before the plane leaves."
Originally published in The Village Voice, March 1, 1976