Champion Jack Dupree Biography

William Thomas Dupree, 4 July 1910, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, d. 21 January 1992, Hanover, Germany. (Dupree’s birth date is the matter of some conjecture and is sometimes listed as 23 July 1909). Orphaned in infancy, Dupree was raised in the Colored Waifs Home for Boys until the age of 14. After leaving, he led a marginal existence, singing for tips, and learning piano from musicians such as Willie ‘Drive-’em-down’ Hall. Dupree also became a professional boxer, and blended fighting with hoboing throughout the 30s, before retiring from the ring in 1940, and heading for New York. Initially, he travelled only as far as Indianapolis, where he joined with musicians who had been associates of Leroy Carr. Dupree rapidly became a star of the local black entertainment scene, as a comedian and dancer as well as a musician. He acquired a residency at the local Cotton Club, and partnered comedienne Ophelia Hoy. In 1940, Dupree made his recording debut, with music that blended the forceful, barrelhouse playing and rich, Creole-accented singing of New Orleans with the more suave style of Leroy Carr. Not surprisingly, a number of titles were piano/guitar duets, although on some, Jesse Ellery’s use of amplification pointed the way forward. A few songs covered unusual topics, such as the distribution of grapefruit juice by relief agencies, or the effects of drugs.

Dupree’s musical career was interrupted when he was drafted into the US Navy as a cook; even so he managed to become one of the first blues singers to record for the folk revival market while on leave in New York in 1943. Dupree’s first wife died while he was in the navy, and he took his discharge in New York, where he worked as a club pianist, and formed a close musical association with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. His own post-war recording career commenced with a splendid series of solo recordings for Joe Davis, on some of which the influence of Peetie Wheatstraw is very evident. More typical were the many tracks with small groups recorded thereafter for a number of labels from 1946-53, and for King Records between April 1953 and late 1955. As ever, these recordings blend the serious with the comic, the latter somewhat tastelessly on songs such as ‘Tongue Tied Blues’ and ‘Harelip Blues’. ‘Walking The Blues’, a comic dialogue with Teddy ‘Mr Bear’ McRae, was a hit on King, and the format was repeated on a number of titles recorded for RCA Records’ Vik and Groove. In 1958, Dupree made his last American recordings until 1990; ‘Blues From The Gutter’ appears to have been aimed at white audiences, as was Dupree’s career thereafter. In 1959, he moved to Europe, and lived in Switzerland, England, Sweden and Germany, touring extensively and recording prolifically, with results that varied from the excellent to the mediocre. This served both as a stamp of authenticity and as a licensed jester to the European blues scene. The tracks on the 1993 release One Last Time were drawn from Dupree’s final recording session before his death the previous year.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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