February 22, 2018
Champion Jack Dupree – I Had A Dream
I was reading a book I bought in Canada called The Chitlin’ Circuit And The Road To Rock ‘N’ Roll by Preston Lauterbach. For those who know little about the circuit then it was a selection of venues in the American South. The circuit was initially popular for large bands that played to dance goers in small and often lethal venues. The story is not only about the locations, African American culture and music but also the promoters. Predictably the promoters were less than lovely: prostitution, illegal gambling and money laundering came in tow. The venues were often dangerous. They had no fire safety and there is a horrific story about the loss of 244 lives in Natchez, Mississippi when one such venue caught fire. I cycled past the plaque in 2015 on my way to New Orleans. In this instance the event organisers had sought to keep out gate crashers by nailing the windows and doors shut.
Chitterlings were pig’s intestines and associated with an African American diet. The history says that their taste for such offal arose from what was left after their white employers took the choice cuts. So the venues were for African Americans and it was here that some of the most remarkable and legendary acts started their careers. When recorded music became popular the folk wanted to hear them play live. This co-incided with rising costs of putting large acts on the road. So the venues turned to recording artists who often performed alone but maybe backed by a pick up band. This worked perfectly with Blues and early Rock n’ Roll.
So anyway as I’m reading this book about this phenomena I came across Champion Jack Dupree as a ‘bouncer’ at the Naptown Nitery in Indianapolis in the 1940’s. He was already a barrelhouse pianist in demand after having playing live for many years and having recorded several sides for Okeh Records. The club in question was owned by Denver Ferguson the pre-eminent promoter on the Chitlin’ Circuit.
At this point I remembered my father’s record collection.
My father loved jazz. He played a four string rhythm acoustic guitar in the Royal Air Force (as well as repairing Halifax bombers) and collected records (which were passed to me). These were mainly Dixieland and his heroes were Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Kid Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Frankie Trumbauer, Wing Manone, Muggsy Spanier and other bands of the late 1920’s and 1930’s. When he passed I looked through my vinyl inheritance and there was this album, it seemed very out of place. It was like someone discovering a Kanye West record in my collection. (In case you’re interested then no I haven’t).
He liked the Blues if it was played on a cornet and had a funeral paced trombone pouring emotion behind. Granted, he had the obligatory Bessie Smith records but why Champion Jack Dupree? I’d love to have asked him.
In some idle emails with Steve Jessney of Nothin’ But The Blues radio fame on Vixen 101 William Thomas ‘Champion Jack’ Dupree came up and Steve forwarded some of his recording for me to absorb. This I did and I then reached for my Dad’s vinyl. Dupree is described as a barrelhouse piano-player and Blues singer. There is beauty and emotion in his soulful voice that is complemented by his rolling piano that fills the gaps or keeps the rhythm. In fact the sound is complete and the need for other instruments is often not necessary. This is early 20th Century Blues in the late 20th Century, which could only be played by a man of his heritage and background.
If I had to write about a fictional Blues musician I could never have dreamt up Champion Jack. My attempt would include some prodigious talent, a lot of racial prejudice, New Orleans as a birthplace, possible being orphaned and then some addictions before legendary status and reverence.
I would not included a father from the Belgian Congo and a half African American and Cherokee mother who were killed in their house by a fire started by the Klu Klux Klan. Credibility would be stretched by a career that involved 107 boxing bouts and the winning of the amateur title of ‘Golden Gloves (affording our hero the prefix of ‘Champion’). Now venturing into nonsense the pugilist would make ends meet by being a cook (mainly of New Orleans cuisine, of course). These were skills he’d use in the US Navy during the Second World War where he’d end up in a Japanese POW camp after his ship went down.
Subsequently he’d decide after a music career in the deeply prejudiced Deep South to move to Europe. He’d calculate that he was welcome and the competition for well paid gigs was less. Here he’d live in England, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany before dying in the early 1990’s. Along the way he’d be cited by white Blues megastars as an influence and also play with them.
Oh, yes and I wouldn’t have thrown in the three wives or the eleven kids.
Dupree spent his brief marriage to Shirley, a white waitress he met at a London club, in Ovenden. This is about 45 miles from my house in West Yorkshire. Ovenden’s entry in Wikipedia tells you that it boasts a population of just over 12,000. Its main claim to fame is being a former home of Dupree!
In fact the town is close to Halifax, a much larger town. Halifax is typical of many towns that have declined and or reinvented themselves after Britain’s industrial decline. The Calder Valley on which it sits historically was a centre of wool, carpet, confectionary and machine tool production. Today it’s best known for a bank that includes its name in its title.
Not all the locations that I have visited in the USA match the romance of the names. Without seeking to tarnish them then Muscle Shoals, Clarksdale, New Orleans, Highway 61 and the rest are important but not easy on the eye. I have to say that Ovenden wouldn’t have been in my improbable fictional Blues musician’s life. He must have loved her!
As regards the album then in 1982 Dupree was living in Hanover; this is his third album with guitarist Kenn Lending. Lending is Danish and he recorded and played with Dupree for the remainder of his life accumulating around 12 albums and over 1,000 concerts. The age difference was 45 years; it is unimaginable what Lending learned. Dupree was probably glad to have a younger and fitter companion for all the touring that they did to make a living!
The album still sounds contemporary with several songs that touch the edges of rock n’ roll with their boogie woogie rhythms. Lending plays a key roll often behind the piano in the mix but usually getting a turn at the melody as the young Dane picks on his Gibson delicately around the more robust stride piano of Dupree. Ten tracks are simply played and produced but it is a full sound.
When not singing he can regale us with a chat about Ray Charles’ in “Baby Please Don’t Go” or the evils of LSD in “You Better Kick The Habit”. “Rockin’ The Boogie’ is contemporary as it sounds and the telepathic electric guitar relationship comes to the fore. All bar one are self compositions. Roosevelt Sykes’ “I Hate To Be Alone” is the exception. Unusually this involves some unison vocals with Lending.
Lyrically throughout we get the full nine yards – women problems, humour, drugs, loneliness and a little bit of Christianity on the spiritual “Good Lord Born On Christmas.
Always in command and never straining you know he’s completely in control and probably only unleashing a small amount of this talent. The piano playing on “You Better Kick The Habit’ gives glimpses of the sophisticated jazzy patterns he could weave.
In between the vocal interjections redolent of old Bluesmen comes the humour. On the title track “I Had A Dream” he tells us about his mother in law. “She was crazy. I knew she was crazy… but not about me!”
I shall be rummaging through some jazz vinyl racks to see if I can lay my hands on more Dupree/Lending gems. If there is anything to remember from this ramble then don’t dispose of your Dad’s records as I came back to this 28 years after he’d gone.