In 1987, Rick Astley positioned himself as Michael McDonald’s Mini-Me. But there was another contender who’d got there before him. If ever someone had both a voice and songwriting style reminiscent of McDonald, it was Robbie Dupree, the singer/songwriter who emerged in 1980. Perhaps that’s unfair; he was also his own man, writing or co-writing the bulk of these two soft-rock-with-a-smooth-jazz-twist albums, originally on Elektra. They’re shiny, expensive-sounding affairs, typical of the final throes of the first singer/songwriter movement. Robbie Dupree was already in his mid-30s when his self-titled debut came out. He did remarkably well to land at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the frothy “Steal Away”, which must have sounded as uncannily McDonald-like then as it does now. Brooklynite Dupree was also influenced by Marvin Gaye and his soulful first album, recorded in Los Angeles, is a breezy, summery-sounding pleasure.
Let’s go back a bit. The term ‘yacht rock’ was coined as an epithet of derision for a sub-genre of soft-rock (itself a sub-genre), regarded as excessively polished and lightweight, celebrating glib, conspicuous consumption (some corners of hip-hop have since given it more than a run for its money in those particular stakes) with lyrics depicting penthouse-perfect, bourgeois romantic scenarios. In recent years it’s been rehabilitated. The sneering has ceased, and in its place, there’s an admiration for the immense amount of talent and industry that when into the making of these records. Compilations are now marketed under the yacht rock banner, and there’s a cult-like appreciation of its luxuriant charms. Dupree’s music fits the genre description down to a tee. The songs on his debut were written by him (credited under his birth surname of Dupois), either alone or with partners such as co-producer Rick Chudacoff (the other producer was Peter Bunetta). They’re vignettes of sun-kissed, romantic yearning, amorous adventurous in convertibles, cocktail bar heartbreak, and elopement.
If you like “Steal Away”, then there’s more where that came from. “Thin Line”, written with the album’s keyboard player, Bill Elliott, is slick, sincere, expertly constructed, arranged and recorded, marrying soul with pop to immensely likable effect. “It’s a Feeling” is the kind of thing that still gets airplay on smooth jazz radio stations. Dupree’s melody lines and phrasing are searching and intelligent although the lyrics are boilerplate romance. “Hot Rod Hearts”, Dupree’s other high-charting single, comes from an external songwriting team and seems overtly calculated for radio appeal.
Some of the material is not dissimilar to that which Leon Ware, also on Elektra at this point in time, was creating. “We Both Tried”, from the combined pens of David Foster and Chicago’s Bill Champlin and recorded two years earlier for Champlin’s own solo debut, slips by pleasantly enough. The problem is that there’s a fine line between smooth and sterile and yacht rock straddles it. “Love Is a Mystery” is a case in point. It’s beautifully recorded, with keyboards and percussion sounding particularly crisp and fresh. But it teeters dangerously close to muzak. Fortunately, “Lonely Runner”, which closes the album, packs a much-needed punch, unfolding with a compelling sense of drama and melancholy. The album now comes repackaged with four bonus tracks – Spanish versions of “Steal Away”, “Nobody Else”, “Hot Rod Hearts” and “Lonely Runner”.
Dupree got back together with the same team the following year for Street Corner Heroes (Elektra, 1981) but this time with a greater reliance on outside writers, and electric guitar made more prominent in the mix. As with the debut, these are songs of teen yearning, callow bravado, lust, and heartbreak. Although every last detail was in place to appeal to contemporary radio, the album failed to replicate the success of the debut. Perhaps that’s because Dupree’s voice doesn’t always muster enough character to carry an album. It’s a very able instrument, but sometimes it lacks a distinctive personality. Or perhaps it’s because the formula was wearing thin, coming off bland and sanitized. Maybe it’s because there was less of Dupree’s own writing and so we’re left with the cookie-cutter poetry of “Brooklyn Girls”: “She spins the wheel of fortune on the boardwalk…she dreams about the lights across the river / Dances in the dark while the radio plays / She knows that someone out there must be waiting / To take her in his arms.” Cue the obligatory sax solo.
The doo-wop cover, “All Night Long”, is rendered too antiseptic for words. On “Free Fallin'” (“Do you remember nights on Bleeker Street / All The old places where we used to meet / Back in the schoolyard playing Romeo / We were the only ones afraid to let go”‘), the tell-tale, plinky-plonky keyboard shuffle from “Steal Away” recurs, but now it sounds a little rinky-dink and anaemic. It’s left to the title track (written by a committee of six; a sign of things to come) to inject a bit of vigor and élan into the proceedings. “I’ll Be the Fool Again’, with its processed keyboard sound, is shrink-wrapped, disposable pop of a particularly wearying variety. There’s nothing quite as affecting as “Thin Line” from the debut. A single edit of “Saturday Night” is the bonus content.
A little of these albums goes a long way, and they sound better played in individual sittings. Listened to all at once, songs start to merge into an un-seasoned soup. It becomes fatiguing. This is flawless studio music, lacking that bit of character or trace of a flaw that might have elevated it above the competition. Dupree is a formidable vocalist and a very decent songwriter whose good faith and investment are palpable on every track, but by the second album, the music seems excessively manicured. For examples of yacht rock with an edge, consider Ned Doheny’s Hard Candy (Columbia, 1976) and Prone (CBS, 1979) both of which groove a little more than Dupree’s albums, or, for what might be termed yacht-soul, try Leon Ware’s Rockin’ You Eternally (Elektra, 1981) and Leon Ware (Elektra, 1982).
As for Dupree, he re-emerged eight years later on Gold Castle, the label which, along with Cypress Records, provided a refuge for a number of formerly-major label talents like Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Karla Bonoff. Since the 1990s, he has recorded for a variety of independents and remains active. Blixa Sounds is a new reissue label and among its inaugural releases is one from another yacht rock favorite, Stephen Bishop.
With the Dupree catalogue, Blixa has issued what should now stand as the definitive, archival versions of the two albums, having worked with the original tapes. The presentation is a hybrid of the digipack and the Japanese mini-LP, printed on fairly inexpensive stock, too springy for the gatefold to close properly and with, alas, no liner notes explaining the provenance of the bonus tracks or the story of the original albums, but still plastic-free and more attractive than a jewel case presentation. The glaring oversights are the songwriting credits, all notable by their absence. The most important aspect, however, the music, has been entrusted to Bill Inglot and Dave Schultz, remastering engineers whose names are synonymous with care and quality.