CHAMPION JACK DUPREE
Born Wiliam Thomas Dupree, 4 July 1910, New Orleans, Louisiana
Vocalist, pianist, songwriter, also played guitar and drums.
Bluesman Champion Jack Dupree described himself as “the last of the barrelhouse piano players”. He was a major influence on rhythm and blues players from the South, including Fats Domino. His long musical career was divided between the USA (1940-1959) and Europe (1959-1992). Dupree was a great entertainer, with a unique mix of lowdown blues, off the wall humour and old time barrelhouse piano.
Born in 1910, Jack Dupree was orphaned at the age of two (both of his parents died in a fire) and until the age of 14 he was raised in a New Orleans orphanage for black children. According to his autobiographical song “Schoolday Blues” (1961), he never went to school. (“Not one day”, he adds in a later version.) After leaving the orphan’s home, he led a marginal existence, hoboing and singing for tips on street corners. Dupree learned to play piano from barrelhouse pianist Willie “Drive ‘em Down” Hall. In 1930 he moved to Chicago, but he never stayed long in one place. After a few years in Detroit he went to Indianapolis in 1935 where he met his idol and main influence Leroy Carr. He then became a professional boxer, battling in an estimated 107 bouts. He won several state championships and Golden Gloves and his pugilistic nickname “Champion Jack” stuck.
Dupree’s first recording session took place on June 13, 1940, in Chicago. Eight songs were recorded for the OKeh label, followed by nine more in January 1941. His best known number from this period is “Junker Blues” (written by his mentor Willie Hall), which Fats Domino would transform into “The Fat Man” in 1949. Some of these early recordings show what imagination this man without formal school training had, full of irony and social awareness. In late 1942 a call from Uncle Sam ended both his musical and boxing career. He served in the Pacific as a cook in the Navy. Eventually he spent two years as a prisoner of war in Japan.
After WW II Dupree hung up his boxing gloves for good, opting instead to pursue a full-time career as an entertainer. He moved to New York City, sharing a house with Brownie McGhee in Harlem. Between 1945 and 1953, McGhee played guitar on most of Dupree’s records. Contracts meant little to Dupree. He had bad experiences with several labels and cheated them in return by recording for other companies under a variety of names, like Willie Jordan & his Swinging Five, Brother Blues & the Back Room Boys and Meat Head Johnson & his Blues Hounds.
Some of Jack’s best work was recorded during the years 1953-55, first for Red Robin ("Shim Sham Shimmy” and “Shake Baby Shake” are almost proto-rock and roll) and then for King. The latter was a Cincinnati label, but most of the 30 titles Dupree cut for them were recorded in New York City, now with Mickey Baker on guitar instead of Brownie McGhee. It was on King that Dupree scored his only chart entry, “Walkin’ the Blues” (# 6 R&B, 1955), a collaboration with Mr. Bear (Teddy McRae). On the minus side, there were a few King recordings whose humour derived from caricaturing speech defects (“Harelip Blues”, “Tongue Tied Blues”).
After two years with the RCA subsidiaries Groove and Vik, Dupree was signed by Atlantic, for which he recorded his first album (generally considered to be one of his best), “Blues From the Gutter”, in February 1958. It included a remake of 1941’s “Junker Blues”, good versions of the ancient folk blues numbers “Stack-O-Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny” and the stomping “Nasty Boogie”.
This would be the last recording Dupree made in the USA until 1990. Fed up with American racism, he moved to Europe in 1959 and lived in Switzerland, Sweden, England and Germany until his death. He toured extensively and recorded prolifically for European labels, especially in the 1960s. Only occasionally did he return to the US, in 1982 to New York City and in 1990 to his hometown New Orleans for the Jazz & Heritage Festival. While there, he laid down a zesty album for the Bullseye Blues label, “Back Home In New Orleans”.
In 1991 Dupree was hospitalized with cancer of the spinal cord. He died on January 21, 1992, in his apartment in Hannover, Germany. Jack Dupree was a champ until the very end.
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Acknowledgements : Norbert Hess, Chris Smith, Bill Dahl.
Dik, April 2016
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