Robbie Dupree on Chart Success, Breaking the Latin Market, and Yacht Rock
Veteran musician Robbie Dupree is OK with you calling his music yacht rock. After all, he says, it's not the only trick up his sleeve.
27 April 2018
Street Corner Heroes
27 April 2018
Robbie Dupree seemed to have appeared from nowhere when his song, "Steal Away", turned up on the Top 40 charts in early 1980. You could be forgiven for believing that Dupree had come from a sunny, Southern California landscape where he bathed in the same eternal rays as Jackson Browne. UV rays seemed to radiate from the radio speakers each time that first single and its successor, "Hot Rod Hearts" came on during the days just before video killed the radio star. The truth runs deeper than that.
Dupree was born in Brooklyn in the years just after World War II, arriving just in time to grow up loving soul, R&B and doo-wop music. Later, when going up the country became more than a Canned Heat song, Dupree made his way to Woodstock, New York. Despite not being the site of the famed three-day celebration of peace, love and rock 'n' roll, the sleepy town had become a haven for rock groups. Dylan had lived there and the Band became the Band in and around those woods. It was cheap and four or five guys could get a place of their own with their drums and their guitars.
"When I came here the streets were full of dreamers who were trying to live out their dreams," Dupree says, speaking on an early spring afternoon in 2018, nearly 40 years after "Steal Away" raced up the charts. "Now, in order to live here, you have to have already accomplished your dream. You can't come here and live in a band house and play local gigs. That's what I did when I came up here from Manhattan. Everybody got to go to school and have these great people around to play with. It was a real education."
Part of Dupree's own education involved fronting a variety of bands, including New World Rising, an outfit that included future Chic man Nile Rodgers. Dupree was at the front door of a deal with Mercury Records in the late '70s when he heard California calling. "I imagined that being locked into a recording contract for three to five years wouldn't be a good thing", he recalls. "I gave the rest of the guys I was with the record deal and some of the music I'd written and moved to California with 40 bucks in my pocket. I started from scratch, really."
That was 1978, two years before "Steal Away" and a contract with Elektra was on the table. Dupree landed on his feet in his new hometown, however, thanks to some Woodstock connections.
"When I was still in New York, I guy I'd grown up with had a kid brother was in trouble," Dupree says. "My friend asked if I could help him out, so I let the kid come and live with me at a band house. We were a good influence even if we weren't angels! Anyway, after about a year the kid straightened out. My friend said, 'If you ever need anything, let me know.' He and his kid brother, the one I helped out, had gone to Venice and opened a restaurant. I got a job as a host from them and rented a place on the beach for $300 a month. Whatever money I had went into making demos."
He called in help from his friends in the band Crackin', an outfit that had started in the Midwest, made its way to L.A. and was reaching the end of its time on Warner Bros. The sessions yielded five songs which Dupree's then "sort of" manager shopped around to no avail.
"I came home to New York disillusioned and spent a couple of months loading trucks in Long Island and didn't really know what to do next," the singer recalls.
A late night phone call changed that. The producer of Dupree's producer was on the other end, chattering about a friend who'd fallen in love with one of the songs on that five-song demo. "He had a friend who worked at Elektra who just happened to stop by his house as he was on his way to England for his father's funeral. They were just sitting around, playing music and talking. My producer's brother played this guy the cassette."
It wasn't an official pitch session, but the Elektra executive was moved by something he heard in the material. He told Dupree's friend, "I'll be back in L.A. next week. Tell this guy to call me. I'll give him a deal."
"So," Dupree notes, "after 15 years of showcases and press kits and all kinds of gigs, it came down to this twist of fate. George Steele from Elektra just happened to hear the tape by accident. That's it."
Among those five tracks was "Steal Away", a song that quickly revealed itself as a single. The years of waiting for a contract had taught Dupree a number of things, including how to score a favorable deal. "They wanted to give me a really low deal for the record", he says. "I said they could have 'Steal Away' and a B-side. They had 90 days to call for an album if the single was successful. Three months later, we were already in the Top 10. That meant they had to sign a deal for much, much more than they wanted to give me."
Dupree already had a mostly finished album and one hit single and so Elektra remained largely hands-off when it came to steering his direction. Though his careful maneuvering could have been read as a stroke of ego, it was more the sign of an even-headed vet. "It was a big risk", he says, "but I realized that you only get a chance to do this once. I'd already been around for such a long time and seen so many people destroyed by the deals they signed. I figured, 'Put all money on red.' What could I lose?"
Already in his 30s, he'd spent half his lifetime in the industry. As such he was determined to make his first album a statement worthy of the time he'd already put in. "I was almost 32 when I got that deal. Usually, if you haven't made it by that age, you leave the business. I was dedicated to the album a piece of legacy work, something I would be proud of no matter what happened."
"Steal Away" would eventually yield a Grammy nomination, though Christopher Cross would take home a trophy that night instead of Dupree. The single would also falsely garner the singer the reputation of a One-Hit Wonder as he soon followed his initial hit with the same album's "Hot Rod Hearts."
It almost didn't happen. "We had to turn the album in on a Monday and Elektra was really excited to have it because 'Steal Away' was already on the charts", offers Dupree. "We listened to the whole album on a Friday night. Everyone was psyched about it but Gary Brandt, the engineer, said, 'We don't have another single.' I said, 'Who cares? Let's just get the record out.' There was a lot of fighting but Gary finally said, 'I know a song that could be the other single. Will you at least listen to it?' Stephen Geyer, the primary songwriter, gets a call. He shows up late, about midnight, sits down at the piano and plays about two-thirds of 'Hot Rod Hearts' for me. It wasn't done."
Dupree remained unimpressed. "I said, 'With all due respect, I don't hear it. Let's just fuck it, turn the record in on Monday and we'll all be happy.' Gary talked the producers into listening to it again and they loved it. They said, 'Let's just do it tomorrow.'"
Deciding to put his feelings aside for a moment, the singer conceded that it the track could be cut in a 24-hour period and rise to his expectations it could make the album. "I helped finish it," he recalls, "everyone came in and cut it. As we got done with it, it finally dawned on me that it was a great idea!"
Despite his reluctance to record it, "Hot Rod Hearts" yielded Dupree his second hit single. The record hovered just below Top 10 but remained a familiar presence on FM radio during the era. The self-titled album did respectable business, peaking at 51 on the album charts. Listening to the album some 38 years after its first appearance, it remains a strong testament to its creator's strengths. "Thin Line" and "It's a Feeling" seem ripe for covering by a contemporary artist as does the Bill Champlin/David Foster composition, "We Both Tried".
MTV had not yet come into existence, a fact that many pop culture historians have suggested allowed for the success of Dupree's contemporary Christopher Cross who essentially disappeared from the charts once the visual overtook the aural. Artists were making videos to send to foreign markets or mainstream television shows that would occasionally air a clip. Though he dismisses his own videos as "terrible", he did make the rounds on a series of talk shows and music-based programs such as Solid Gold and American Bandstand.
Whereas some others may have taken to the road right away, Dupree was keen on staying closer to home. It was, he points out, a strategic move. "I spent all my time in the studio," he says. "Touring wasn't on the agenda. It was really about building a profile. We were trying to build up a body of work so that when it was time to go out and play there was a deeper well to draw from. I'd spent 15 years doing 1000 shows. I was in no hurry to go out and do the kind of thing they were offering artists like me. If you go out with two songs you wind up playing Disneyland."
After the release and success of the debut album, Dupree would deliver a second release of new material, though between there was a curious step, a Spanish language version of the self-titled release. David Lee Roth would make a similar bid for the affections of Spanish-speakers some years later with his own re-recording of Crazy From the Heat (titled Sonrisa Salvaje), but Dupree was leading a new charge at the time.
He befriended a neighbor named Jose Silva, a Chilean who was working for the composer Nino Rota. Silva's wife worked for a translator and she and Dupree discussed the idea of re-recording the album with lead and background vocals re-done in Spanish. Silva's wife translated eight of the nine songs and walked the vocalist through the lines step-by-step as he didn't speak the language. A new company, Latin Connection, was soon formed. "The idea was that once we had a little cache we'd go to various artists and see if they wanted to cut their singles in Spanish," the singer recalls. "We got Jermaine Jackson to do 'Let's Get Serious' and we got the Pointer Sisters to do 'He's So Shy.' But once you don't have the horsepower of the label you can't keep this stuff afloat."
That horsepower was beginning to diminish and would continue to do so after the release of Dupree's sophomore effort, Street Corner Heroes. When the album emerged in 1981, it had some initial clout. The first single, "Brooklyn Girls", was doing well at radio and the first album was still a relatively fresh memory.
"I did all that work and the wheels came off at the label," says Dupree. The threat of a federal investigation into payola and independent promotion was looming. "There was a big, big upheaval coming. Elektra and all of Warner and Asylum suspended their independent promotion. 'Brooklyn Girls' had gotten on the radio immediately on WNBC. It was really going to happen. Then Elektra pulled the promotion and that was the end of the record."
With the single and album stalled, Dupree continued to work diligently only to find that most of the faces at Elektra had changed. "You find yourself without anyone in your corner except you," he says. "I got dropped and it was a long five years before I was able to do anything again because things had changed."
MTV, which had not yet launched when "Steal Away" took the world by surprise, was now inescapable and artists often broke there before they really broke at radio. "I couldn't get signed again," says Dupree. "I was lucky to find a manager who told me that we shouldn't worry about where we weren't happening. We had to focus on where people were still interested, so between Europe and Japan we were able to cobble together some budgets to make independent releases."
He returned to Woodstock during that time and turned to some old friends, Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta. The pair had worked with Peter Gabriel while the former Genesis vocalist's solo star was rising and Levin has been a member of the on-again/off-again King Crimson since the early 1980s.
Dupree had first crossed paths with Marotta when the then-teenaged drummer was joining Orleans ("Still The One"), a band that had called Woodstock home for a period. "We were all making records. There were five recording studios in town and there's only 5,000 people. That's a lot of musical activity." He met Levin when the bassist/Chapman Stick player moved into bear country around the time he was recruited for the job in King Crimson. "We were all interested in a lot of the same things. Tony and I were big boxing fans and we'd always go to the fights with Jack DeJohnette and other players who loved going to matches."
When it came time for Dupree to return to recording, he called on his friends. "Tony and Jerry played on the song that brought me back to recording, a piece called 'This Is Life' from about 1987. It was those two and David Sancious and John Tropea and myself. That started a whole thing of us playing together. We did tours together and more recording together. Tony appears on an additional two or three albums and recently he's done even more recording with me."
This year has seen the arrival of a new single, "Ordinary Day", a lovely, often Latin-tinged number, it finds the singer's trademark voice intact. It's a statement about a world that some might have hoped would slip away after Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" or Prince's "Sign O' the Times". Far from a disposable late-career tune, it serves as an excellent example of why and how Dupree remains in the game. Joining him on the track are many of the players from those first Elektra recordings.
It is one part of what he does as an artist these days, he says. The other involves the yacht rock craze that has culminated in the reissue of the first two Dupree releases on Blixa (replete with Spanish language bonus cuts on the debut). "I do a lot of stuff with Yacht Rock Revue," he enthuses. "That's a great band of really amazing, talented young guys. They're amazing and they've broken out all over the country and are selling out from New York to Los Angeles. When I play there could be 2,000 people there under 30. They know every word to every song that one of the guest artists sings. Every one. It's a phenomenon. Having control over the music has a lot more significance now than what it would have 10 years ago."
Those early records, he points out, came back into his possession about a year ago, ending years of fans having to find them in used record stores or via CD-Rs made available through the artist's official site. "Elektra made enough off that music for 35 years," he says, before turning his attention back to yacht rock.
He was tipped off to the yacht rock revival, he says, by his friend Brian Ray, who he's known since the L.A. days and who has been in Sir Paul McCartney's employment for well over a decade. "Brian was on a cruise, saw the Revue and called me to say, 'You gotta check these guys out!' I saw them in New York, loved them and was the first of the original artists to go play with them as a guest. I brought in Peter Beckett from Player and Stephen Bishop, Matthew Wilder, Elliot Lurie from Looking Glass. Some of these people were semi-retired and we've all gotten a lot out of it."
Though some artists might find the term pejorative, Dupree remains, as he does about so many things, less than precious. "There are a lot of people who are too serious about themselves," he offers. "They're too serious about what they were in 1979. Now they're pushing 70 and arguing about it. What the fuck do they want? Would they like the term 'soft rock' better? It's not like something special has been replaced. Easy listening? I don't like that. Yacht rock is fun. It's given each of us a chance to have a new audience instead of playing for old people who remember the records from the first time around. Now you have this golden opportunity to play for all these young people is great. Would they like the shows more if we said, 'Come to an easy listening party?' I don't think so."