Remembering go-to guitarist Kenny Cordray
Andy Bradley queues up a song at Wire Road Studios, and his eyes glisten the moment the guitar enters. The song is by local singer and saxophonist Evelyn Rubio. Kenny Cordray plays guitar on the session, one of the last things he ever recorded.
“He was my go-to guitar player,” Bradley says. The statement carries weight because Bradley’s career as a recording engineer spans more than 30 years and 1,000 recordings.
Bradley plays “Worried Mind,” a recording by Houston native and country singer Johnny Bush with Willie Nelson and the late Ray Price singing. Cordray on guitar, again. Then something new from R&B singer Archie Bell with Cordray. He skips ahead to a track by Cordray’s own band, a cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.”
“That tells me how strong a player he was,” Bradley says. “For him to play a Clapton song that way. He states the opening lick and then departs completely.”
On Wednesday, several local musicians will gather at Fitzgerald’s for a show in Cordray’s honor. The guitarist died on May 21, shot and killed by his son in a murder-suicide at Cordray’s home in Nassau Bay. He was 62. A half-century of those years were spent playing guitar in public.
Born in Texarkana, Cordray identified as a native Houstonian. Here he began playing guitar in public as a teenager. He never achieved the cultural ubiquity of rock ‘n’ roll’s guitar gods, but Cordray nevertheless surfaced time and again with musical tastemakers who admired his talents.
He was still a teen when he joined the psych-rock band The Children, which released a notable record in 1968, and through his association with the group he found himself immersed in the storied psych scene that developed around Houston’s International Artists label. Being part of that scene likely helped Cordray get a song he co-wrote, “Francine,” onto “Rio Grande Mud,” the second album by ZZ Top.
Music critic Robert Christgau managed to praise Cordray while making a backhanded comment about ZZ Top when he called it “the only memorable song” on the album. It wasn’t his last time working with musical heroes.
Cordray caught the ear of the legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius, who recruited the guitarist into Wayne Cochran’s C.C. Riders band. Pastorius called him “one of the greatest blues and rock players I’ve ever heard.”
Cordray played in an early band with soon-to-be super-producer David Foster and at times worked alongside rock greats like John Lee Hooker, Jerry Lee Lewis and John Mayall. More recently, he played in Houston ensembles like CORDRAY and Love Street Light Circus.
And Bradley kept him busy. He believes he called Cordray to play on around 200 recording sessions. He plays “Under the Rainbow,” a beautifully nuanced instrumental that Cordray wrote, inspired by Jeff Beck’s “Over the Rainbow.”
“It was almost impossible to get him to burn,” Bradley says. “He just wanted to play songs. And listen: Even when he’s burning, he’s still telling a story.”
Next up is “Shapes,” another beautiful instrumental.
The prettiness in much of Cordrays playing represents a peace that he found after a tempestuous youth. Cordray spent his last 30-plus years sober, and worked to help others get there.
“Half the people at his funeral were AA people,” Bradley says.
Bradley says Cordray left behind four CDRs of songs, not including the session work he did. He’s trying to figure out the best path to getting his friend’s music out to people who would appreciate it. He’s put together an album of Cordray’s work that will be available at the memorial show. And he’s marked some local charities for funds from the show.
But Bradley admits, “This is less a benefit than it is a memorial.”