By Lolis Eric Elie
If ever there was a busking Dutchman in need of assistance to get his drug addled life in order, it’s our Sonny (Michiel Huisman). After being late for a rehearsal and a few gigs with Antoine Batiste and his Soul Apostles, Sonny gets help from a band mate, Cornell Williams.
In real life Cornell is a fabulously smooth, right-in-the-groove electric bass player, best known for his many years with Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. On ‘Treme’ he’s a fabulously smooth, right-in-the-groove electric bass player who feels sympathy and perhaps empathy for a fellow musician in trouble. Even though Sonny is “in no danger of being like no great musician,” Cornell devises an only-in-Louisiana rehab program that involves spending time on an oyster boat with Cornell’s Uncle Don Encalade (John Beasley).
When we were putting the Soul Apostles together, Matt Coby, our assistant music supervisor/editor asked Cornell to audition for the part of the bass player. Not only did he sound good at the audition, he seemed at ease speaking lines. Thus a mere music gig became an acting one as well. “It's a whole new world, but I'm loving it. I love challenges,” he said.
I caught Cornell playing at an Absolute Monster Gentlemen reunion gig during the week of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Hungry for a repeat performance, I went to Frenchmen Street and caught Cornell performing with one of his favorite band mates, guitarist Derwin “Big D” Perkins. Those two are in the process of recording an album with their own group, Pocket Time.
Much of Cornell’s work has been with gospel groups including the Gospel Soul Children and his mother’s group, the Heavenly Melodies. Lately he’s been playing the early service at St. Joan of Ark Church in Uptown New Orleans. You can get a reprise of Cornell playing with the Soul Apostles here.
I cornered Cornell recently during a break on the set and he told me one of the most interesting “my first instrument” stories I’ve heard.
"It was kind of crazy the way the whole bass thing started. My uncle had an old cheap guitar. It was like a Fender Squire or something. It was very, very, very cheap. I had grabbed that guitar and he told he, 'you can keep that thing.’
“I tuned the whole thing an octave down to make it sound like a bass. You can imagine what that was like. The strings were very floppy. I used to just go to some of his albums to learn tunes. Back in those days it was Stanley Clarke, Ohio Players, Average White Band, Al Green, the Dazz Band. I got this thing down where I could get a decent tone out of it and I did my first two R&B gigs on this guitar with a band.
“My mom and my dad really didn't have a lot of money. When they saw that I was serious about the bass, they made a deal. They said ‘Look son, if you bring home all A’s on your report card, we are going to get you a bass guitar.’ I'll never forget this as long as I live. I had five A’s and one B and I damn near cried all the way home. I got home and I showed them my report card and I said, ‘A deal is a deal; I dropped the ball.’ But they still got me a Peavey 50 watt bass amp and a cheap Fender bass guitar. That was one of the happiest days of my life. I played that thing all night. My dad came in the room about 2 a.m. and he said, ‘Son, you've got to go to bed.’”