By Devon Wendell
I was saddened when I learned that Hugh McCracken passed away of leukemia yesterday – March 28th, 2013 – in New York City.
While working at Donald Fagen’s recording studio in New York in the 90s, I was constantly surrounded by the top session musicians of the world on a constant basis, especially during a Steely Dan recording project. Some of these titans included: Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Paul Griffin, The Brecker Brothers, and Hugh McCracken. I was absolutely terrified and intimidated by just about all of them with the exception of McCracken. He didn’t have the ultra-cool, funky, macho boastfulness that Purdie and some of the others had that could make a wannabe, geeky musician and engineer like myself feel like the most un-hip person in the world.
McCracken was very approachable and generous with his musical abilities. I wanted to meet him the most because I was not only a budding guitarist, but also a blues fanatic and I knew that McCracken played the original guitar rhythm track on B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” which is one of the most original and tasteful guitar parts ever recorded.
During down time, I’d be in the live room of the studio rapping cable or taking down microphones while McCracken would be laying down some sweet bluesy licks and chords, alone on a chair in the corner. He had a relaxed, pensive look on his face.
I was very young and played in an overly, flashy manner, not trusting in the economical power of the blues. Larry Carlton had donated a Gibson semi-hollobody guitar to the studio that I used to play all the time. On a few occasions, I’d talk to McCracken and show him some fast blues runs that I had learned. He’d look at me without judgment and say, “Well, try it this way,” while cutting everything I had shown him into a half or more. It made what I was playing sound sloppy and rushed. He knew exactly how to get right to the point with a few perfectly placed notes and with the right tone.
He taught me that you couldn’t always play like Godzilla behind a good singer or in a larger orchestral sound. All I thought about before then was the guitar solo and putting my stamp on everything too loud and too fast. Can you imagine if McCracken had tried to play like Buddy Guy or Hendrix on Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen?”
McCracken also changed my perception of playing the guitar with other artists in the studio. He made it work throughout his entire career with everyone from The Funatics in his youth in New Jersey, to Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, James Taylor, John Lennon, The Four Seasons, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Aretha Franklin, and countless others as a primarily New York based player.
So many guitarists today could learn from MCracken’s example of not tossing out your entire technique within the first four bars and really complimenting a song in a extremely imaginative and funky fashion. I wouldn’t be a session player without having heard McCracken’s timeless guitar playing. He will be deeply missed.
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