A drumroll for Jerome Deupree—a legendary rocker in our midst

by Karina Coombs

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Morphine, circa 1990. Mark Sandman on bass and vocals, Dana Colley on sax and Jerome Deupree on drums. (Photo by Lisa Deupree)

“Hope you don’t mind me writing. I’m assuming you are the Jerome Deupree of Morphine,” read the fan letter. Jerry Deupree smiled, “The Jerome Deupree… When I used that on a buddy of mine he said, ‘Yeah, don’t you know who I think I am?’” Deupree has had a legendary career as a musician, but you will never catch him throwing that term around. “People tell me I’m a legend, [but] that’s the kind of stuff that has to come from other people. You can’t go around believing that,” he laughs. 

How it all began

Deupree, of Stearns Street, has been drumming for 50 years, beginning at age six in Ohio. With an older sister who played guitar and a brother who played drums, “there was a lot of rock and roll in the house.” But the spark for Deupree was the soundtrack to the movie West Side Story. “I remember listening to [it], which I still to this day absolutely love. To me that’s some of the most exciting music. I think I hit the bongos and heard the percussion [and] something just kind of clicked. I could do it.”

His first snare drum arrived on his seventh birthday and a four-piece drum kit followed that Christmas, allowing him to start playing beats. After two years of carting his drums to school to play for his classmates, Deupree was recruited for band in the fifth grade. 

But by sixth grade, music class was beginning to run its course. “[The teacher] wanted to feature me with the band, but he wanted me to cut my hair and I said no. I stood up for my principles.” At this Deupree laughs, “He was sort of like, ‘your hair is going to grow back. This opportunity might not come again.’ I said I didn’t care.” In seventh grade he quit band altogether after struggling to play the theme song to Hawaii Five-O as part of an orchestra section. “It was miserable. [I said to the teacher], ‘You give me a drum set I can do that no problem.’ He replied, ‘Agh, get out of here, kid.’”

Playing by ear

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Jerome Deupree. (photo by Lisa Duepree)

“It was all instinctive,” says Deupree of learning to play the drums. “It was all self-taught, just listening to music and playing along. [Jimi] Hendrix was a big influence. In High School I remember playing along to Frank Zappa and intrinsically figuring out a lot of odd figures.” 

While Deupree attended drum clinics and tried private lessons off and on, it was not until the late ’80s that he stuck with it for a number of years, working with Berklee College of Music Professor and founder of the Fringe, Robert Gullotti. “I can’t say I didn’t want to learn. It was just much harder for me, trying to read and do the stuff I could do naturally by ear.” 

Going professional

His first professional gig was toward the end of middle school one summer in Maine. Deupree and his brothers were determined to play at a local bar instead of their usual end of the summer concert. After two weeks of rehearsal, a local bar owner came to hear them play and, while he thought they were good, was concerned about Deupree’s young age. A plan was formed to age Deupree with stage makeup, but in the end a friend simply cut Deupree’s hair and glued it to his upper lip. “I’d yawn, sweat, and half of it would go. On the breaks I’d go over and drink my ginger ale in the shadows, but I was getting paid and playing professionally as a teenager.”

After high school, Deupree ventured to Indiana and spent three years playing and recording. During this time he was recruited as studio drummer for a John Mellencamp demo. “He only had a handful of original songs, some of which had already been recorded. I did [the recording] telling him the whole time how ridiculous it was.” Mellencamp’s manager Tony Defries—who also managed David Bowie—instead released the demo as the album “Chestnut Street Incident” and changed Mellencamp’s name to Johnny Cougar. Deupree, who had initially been upset about signing away his rights to the album, felt relief once it was reviewed by Rolling Stone magazine. “I remember reading this totally scathing review and this weight totally lifted off my shoulders. I wanted to write a letter, ‘I played on that record and thank you for your review!’”

The bands

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Vapors of Morphine: Dana Colley on sax, Jeremy Lyons on bass and vocals, Jerome Deupree on drums.
(Photo by Lisa Deupree)

Moving to Santa Cruz, California in 1977, Deupree joined the new wave band, The Humans. The band was successful, opening for both Iggy Pop and Squeeze and recording a number of singles that were released by I.R.S. records. “At some point I’d had enough,” he says of leaving the band amicably in 1980. Deupree and his wife, then girlfriend, moved to Boston in 1981 after discovering the music scene in the now defunct Boston Phoenix. He would go on to play with a number of bands with varying success. 

After playing with the Decoders, Deupree went on to join the Sex Execs. The band was popular locally and came in second place during the 1983 Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble, a Boston battle of the bands competition, losing to the group   ’Til Tuesday. Deupree then went on to play with Mr. Happy, Bourbon Princess, Either/Orchestra, Joe Morris Trio and the Hypnosonics. “There was a joke for a time that you want [me] to play in your band for just long enough because after [I] leave things will happen.” 

Morphine

In 1989, Deupree joined singer and bassist Mark Sandman and saxophonist Dana Colley to form the band Morphine. Deupree had previously worked with Sandman in the Hypnosonics and was also a fan of yet another popular Sandman band, Treat Her Right. “I was a huge fan of [them] back in the day and would have been even if they weren’t friends of mine. I just thought they were amazing.”

Morphine would perform together until 1991 when Deupree developed arthritis in his hands. Their first album “Good” was recorded before he left and during his recovery. During the nine months he was unable to play, Treat Her Right drummer Billy Conway played with the band. “It was pretty scary. I didn’t know if I was ever going to play drums again. I remember one night waking up. [I] went to the stereo, put on the headphones and thought that maybe I can still enjoy music. The first thing on the turntable was the soundtrack to West Side Story and the very next thing was “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” At that point I was like, okay, I can still enjoy music even if I can’t play it. That was a breakthrough emotionally.” 

Cure for Pain

After receiving treatment, Deupree rejoined Morphine in the spring of 1992. But following a California tour at the end of that year, Deupree quit the band and was again replaced by Conway. “We had some great gigs, but Mark and I really weren’t getting along at that point so I decided to leave. It was a heartbreak for me because I always say I didn’t want to leave, but couldn’t stay.” 

Deupree returned to the studio at the request of Sandman to record some singles for what would later be the album “Cure for Pain.” “[It] is probably still their best selling record. It wasn’t antagonistic in the studio, but there wasn’t any sense that, ‘this is one for the ages.’ But it turned out that way and thank God for that. I’m extremely lucky in that regard and that’s something you can never plan. If people know me as a drummer at all, it’s probably through that record.”

Not long after, Morphine would sign with Rykodisk and release the two albums with much success. “It was a little weird to see them,” he admits. “I sort of knew the band was going to be successful on some level. It was real original [and] I could tell there was a connection with people.” Morphine would release albums in 1995 and 1997 with DreamWorks. 

Orchestra Morphine

In 1998, Deupree would once again go into the studio to record with the band on its final album “The Night.” He also played as a special guest on a leg of their tour. “We started playing in the winter and did a few shows.” Morphine would head off for a European tour in the summer of 1999 with talk of Deupree joining the band for a US tour on their return. But on July 3, Sandman died of a heart attack while performing on stage in Palestrina, Italy. 

Following his death, Deupree, Conway and Colley toured as members of the nine-piece Orchestra Morphine to support the 2000 release of “The Night”. They also returned to play Palestrina, Italy the year following Sandman’s death. “In the spring we went on the road and as anyone who’s done it will tell you, three or four nights on the road will just bring a band to a whole other level. It went through the roof and really turned into this powerhouse. To go out on the road and play those songs…There’d be nights where I’d be looking out at the audience and somebody would be crying and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m right there with you.’ I might not be shedding the tears, but a lot of it was giving the people the completion.” 

Vapors of Morphine

Deupree returned to Italy for the 10th anniversary of Sandman’s death with Colley and New Orleans singer, guitarist and bassist Jeremy Lyons as Members of Morphine with Jeremy Lyons. The group has continued to perform within the US and abroad (also under the name The Ever Expanding Waste Band) and has put out a CD, recently renaming itself Vapors of Morphine. They have a standing gig on Wednesday nights at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge with Deupree playing every other Wednesday. “I joke we play Cambridge, New Orleans, or we have to cross an ocean.”

Having lived in Carlisle since 1996, Deupree has also played with local musicians, most notably with The Organics, a band that uses homemade instruments. Deupree also hints at a future Old Home Day parade performance. “Many years ago I woke up hearing Black Dog by Led Zeppelin as done by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I could just hear this whole rollicking thing in my head so it’s been a fantasy ever since to get that up and running.”

“I’ve always been interested in playing a wide variety of styles,” explains Deupree when asked how he moves across genres with ease. “I grew up primarily with the British invasion [but] all this great music was coming out of the same radio. I think I was a jazz snob for about a month and then realized I still like my Led Zeppelin records and Little Feat. Those guys are great drummers and just because one is theoretically simpler than another it doesn’t really mean it’s any easier. At this point I just enjoy playing with who I can play with and it runs the gamut.”

The fan mail continues to come, but Deupree is as laid back as ever about the attention. “[I say] Thank you very much. I’m very honored, [but] to me it’s more about that I get to give back to someone else what so many drummers—known and unknown—have given to me: the joy of music. To me that’s completing the circle and passing it on. That means more to me than, ‘Don’t you know who I think I am?’”   ∆