The 1969 Bath Blues and Rock festival, which took place in the unlikely setting of that Jane Austen/Regency city’s cricket ground, is best remembered for the first full public triumph of an up and coming combo by the name of Led Zeppelin. However, half way through the day, in amongst all the Orange amplifiers and excessive facial hair, a lone figure in his late fifties sat down at an upright piano and unobtrusively delivered his repertoire of barrel-house blues and mildly bawdy songs. It was a set built up in the course of a life as different from that of both the audience and his fellow performers as it is possible to imagine. In a day dominated by blues-inspired progressive rock, here was the genuine article, as subtle and understated as most of the performances were brash and bombastic.
That was my first sighting of Champion Jack Dupree, who was familiar to English fans through his recordings with John Mayall and Eric Clapton and from occasional appearances on John Peel’s radio show. In that era of increasing amplification and the “blues boom”, Dupree was the UK’s resident bluesman. He lived in the northern industrial town of Halifax and toured the country tirelessly, giving many people their first real taste of a piano style that had been formed a continent away and almost two generations earlier.
Of that world, we knew next to nothing, and Dupree’s anecdotes and asides became as important as the two-fisted piano style in educating us and expanding our horizons. That he is chiefly remembered as an “entertainer” and not an innovator ignores the crucial role played by Dupree, and other accidental ambassadors for the blues, in bringing a musical form to life for a whole generation of European listeners. That there are so many blues festivals and specialist magazines here and on the Continent is in no small way down to the original “Travellin’ Man”.
Dupree’s own life, as well as his music, provide a narrative that touched on so many aspects of the 20th century African-American experience that it at times beggars belief. Even accounting for the storyteller’s artistic license and the distorting prism of reminiscence it is still a scriptwriter’s dream. It begins, of course, where such tales should, in New Orleans.
William Thomas Dupree was born on 4 July 1910. His mother was of Cherokee descent and his father a sailor from the Belgian Congo. By the time he was one, both parents had died in a fire started by the Ku Klux Klan. Any or all of the preceding statements may be factual, not all have been firmly established as such. Two things are certain, he was orphaned, had an unusually tough childhood and was raised at the Colored Waifs home, famously associated with Louis Armstrong. He stayed there till he was 14, by which time he had sung for coins on street corners, learned to gamble and had been introduced to the piano by an elderly Italian priest.
His eventual piano technique was derived from Drive Em Down, a legendary barrel-house pianist and something of a mentor to the youngster. Dupree started to sing and play in the brothels and speakeasies around Franklin Street and with the “rougher” jazz bands of Papa Celestin and Kid Papa. He probably also met a youthful Roy Byrd (Professor Longhair) with whom he is supposed to have traded his singing skills for keyboard lessons from that guiding, if somewhat eccentric, light of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues. If that story is true, Dupree got much the better of the deal.
At about the same time he started boxing at Kid Green’s Boxing School on Rampart Street. By 20 then, the two traditional roads away from poverty, sport and music, were Dupree’s life. Some time in this period he witnessed the random killing of a black man by white thugs. With little love for the South and hoping to pursue one of those careers the young man headed for Chicago. The year was 1930.
A few months selling bootleg liquor and playing in clubs was followed by a more prolonged stay in Detroit and then Indianapolis, where music took second place to boxing. In an eight-year career Dupree fought 107 times, mostly on the semi-legit circus and fairground circuit. He seems to have reached his “peak” in 1939, briefly holding an Indiana Lightweight title. It was enough to bestow the term Champion (at which stage he became Jack is unclear) for by the following year he had retired and the piano was once again the prime focus.
Back in Chicago he recorded for Lester Melrose and those 1941 sessions produced one song which, had Dupree done nothing else, would have guaranteed him a place in twentieth century musical history. “Junker Blues” is both classic Dupree and the earliest example on record of what we now think of as golden age, New Orleans blues piano. With its low-life subject matter, its ambivalent moral stance and its “slice of life” lyrics, it also showed that Dupree was a wordsmith above the average with a distinct take on the usual blues themes.
Musically, it is the elder, first cousin of Professor Longhair’s signature song, “Tipitina” (1953), while Fats Domino, turning it into the more acceptable “Fat Man” (1949), used the melody as the launch pad to his career. Given that those are two of the best-known piano tunes from the Crescent City, it is no wonder “Junker Blues” is the favoured choice as opening track to any serious anthology of post-war New Orleans R&B. When Dr. John recorded the magnificent “Gumbo” tribute album, the song, as “Junko Partner”, was one of that album’s highlights. Dupree recorded it a number of times in his career, with interesting ethical variations in the lyrics. The Atlantic 1958 recording is almost as essential as the memorable original.
War saw Dupree a cook in the Marines and for two years a Japanese POW. His comments on what must have been a terrifying episode are characteristically lacking in self-pity. On his return New York beckoned and then began 13 years of prolific recording for a variety of labels and under a variety of names. Of the labels, Red Robin is worth mentioning for the much loved “Shim Sham Shimmy” (1953). Of the names, Meat Head Johnson shows that the comedy that purists frowned at in his later act was not solely a product of the European circuit. King Records held him the longest and his only hit, the wonderful “Walking the Blues” (1955), was with them.
In 1958 he recorded his masterpiece, the album Blues from the Gutter. That was the session that held the re-worked “Junker Blues” and it is the work of a pianist whose mature style is rough-edged but with immense drive and purpose. As a chronicler of life and hard times Dupree is as observant and authoritative as anyone and a world of hardship, TB, prostitution, and escape through sex and alcohol is powerfully but not exploitatively evoked. It is one of the most rewarding blues discs in the Atlantic archives and truly merits its status. Commercially, the material was a non-starter. Too raw for 1950s white America, although a few years later it would have been perfect for the new blues enthusiasts, it was already sounding like a reminder of a lost and unlamented era to a black audience.
Absence of financial success, however, was only part of the reason why 1959 found Dupree in London, enjoying a popular residency at a London club (to remind him of his Chicago days, it was suitably gangster-owned). Dupree gives the lie to the claim that blues musicians were not politically conscious beings. In every statement and interview he explains that his reasons for quitting America were exactly the same as those that black intellectuals and jazz artists, of that era and before, typically expressed. White American Racism drove him first North and then overseas. In Europe he found status as a musician and respect as a man. England and then Germany were to be his places of residence until his death. Not necessarily his home, which for this Black Atlantician was probably only ever the music of New Orleans and Chicago that he played so well.
Dupree was an active anti-racist. His 1968 blues tribute to Martin Luther King directly addressed his white audiences. “I know you’re white and free but what is to become of me”. This was no latter day minstrel, witty as his asides may have been. His European recordings, which are remarkably good considering how many he made, always have a topical feel despite their rootedness in a tradition. America’s loss was Europe’s gain. There was an eventual brief homecoming, with success at festivals in Chicago and the city of his birth, but he returned to Hamburg where he died peacefully (and, it is said, with a smile on his face) in 1992.
To have made that journey from absolute dispossession to security and critical acknowledgement is rather more than the cliché to which it is too often and too easily relegated. The William Thomas Duprees of America were, and remain, a despised and discarded class. The contemporary versions will not know that they have in Jack Dupree a figure who remained loyal to them while forging his own path to dignity. Had he never put on a pair of boxing gloves he would have earned the title “Champion”. As a musician he was one of many important practitioners of one of the great American art forms and his influence is wider than most scholars accept.
The swathe of 20th century history he lived through and his aesthetic responses to it mark him out as someone special, both as a survivor and as a creative human being. He left a large body of work, of which at least 25 CDs are easily available. Try the early recordings, the live Blues at Montreaux album, and Blues from the Gutter. They will give you a flavour of what it was that captivated listeners for 50 years and more. Some of those listeners shared the life he sang about, some first became aware of it through those same songs. As one of the latter group, I count myself lucky to have been so exposed. In that sentiment, I doubt that I stand alone.