Born William Thomas Dupree, July 4, 1910, in New Orleans, LA; died of cancer, January 21, 1992, in Hanover, Germany; pseudonyms include Champion Jack, Brother Blues, Big Tom Collins, Blind Boy Johnson, Meathead Johnson, Willie Jordan, and Lightnin' Jr.; adopted at age 14 by Olivia Gardner; married first wife, Ruth, 1930 (divorced, 1944); married Lucille Dalton, 1948 (divorced, 1959); married third wife, Shirley, 1960 (divorced c. 1975); children: William Jack, Kelvin, Ann Lucille, Julie Ann, Rose Mary, Georgiana, Jackie. Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Navy, 1943-45; served as cook in the Pacific.
"When people appreciate what you do, it's medicine to your soul" was one of the credos of blues great Champion Jack Dupree, who overcame an early life of hardship and deprivation to become an accomplished musician. Dupree learned his craft as a teenager living on the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana, before being taken in by the Gardner family. The Gardners adopted Jack upon hearing of his parents' tragic death in a house fire when he was only one year old. It was a rare act of charity towards the young man, who, despite having older--but estranged--brothers and sisters, was the only child in the New Orleans Colored Waifs' Home for Boys never to get a gift of money or toys. "One of the warders there said to me `How come you don't have any presents or money to buy candy?,'" Dupree once recalled. "I told him nobody left me none. And after that he always left me a little money ... for me to buy peppermint candy."
Like his contemporary Joe Pleasant, Dupree sang as a child in the bars of the former Storyville district of New Orleans. There he came into contact with a rough generation of barroom singers and pianists whose work was never recorded and survives only in anecdote and the aural memory of players like Pleasant and Dupree. Champion Jack, who acquired his nickname after training as a boxer and carving a second career as a prizefighter, knew such early New Orleans bluesmen as Little Butch and Ruby Gales. Not yet famous as a pianist, Dupree became known in his hometown as a singer at open-air concerts with the bands of legendary jazz pioneers Kid Rena and Chris Kelly.
In the late 1920s, as work grew scarce, Dupree took to the road and made his way to Chicago, where he claimed to have witnessed the murder of blues pianist Pinetop Smith. All through the 1930s he traveled the length and breadth of the United States, generally riding freight trains, panhandling, and scratching out a living as a singer or boxer. One town he visited from time to time and where he got to know the local musicians was Indianapolis. Finding himself there again in 1940, he looked up blues pioneers Scrapper Blackwell and Little Bill Gaither, through whose contacts he ended up landing a pianist job at C. Ferguson's Cotton Club. In a double act with comedienne Ophelia Hoy, Dupree became a local celebrity, and this led to his first recordings, made later that year in Chicago.
Apart from a stint of service in World War II, Dupree lived as a musician thereafter. His recording career resumed in 1945 with sides for New York City entrepreneur Joe Davis, and he went on to record prolifically through most of the next 40 years. He made many sides with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry and, for Atlantic in 1958, one of the first "theme" albums, Blues From the Gutter, which focused on narcotic addiction and low life.
The British agency Harold Davison brought Dupree to Europe in the late 1950s, and he decided to stay, becoming a celebrity on the club, concert, and festival circuit. As a blues pioneer, he was welcomed by jazz musicians such as Chris Barber and Keith Smith, both of whom recorded and toured with him, as well as the rhythm and blues enthusiasts that were led in England by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and guitarist Eric Clapton. After settling in Switzerland, Dupree eventually found his way to a small house in Halifax in the north of England, where he settled with his third wife, Shirley, and pronounced that he had never been happy until he arrived in Europe.
Dupree's repertoire consisted of traditional blues, southern songs--such as "Cabbage Greens" and "Chain Gang Blues"--and topical lyrics of his own, including those featured on Warehouse Man Blues. An album of recordings that didn't make it on 1992's Forever and Ever was released posthumously in 1993 on Bullseye Records. One Last Time was termed by James Lien in CMJ "quintessentially Champion Jack ... fitting in seamlessly beside his classic albums like Blues From the Gutter from three decades previous."
Critic John Cowley has praised the "underlying richness" of Dupree's voice, relating how it "adds a cutting edge to [his] understatement." There was an earthy soul to Dupree's playing, which captured the spirit of a vanished age of New Orleans music that went unrecorded and was preserved only in Dupree's playing and in that of Joe Pleasant. Critics have noted that Dupree became the major influence on rhythm and blues players from the South, including pianist Fats Domino, who found much to marvel at in what Cowley called Dupree's "powerfully percussive" style of playing. Dupree received great adulation and fame in Europe, but his last years in Hanover, Germany, were spent alone; it seemed that at that time the burdens of the blues tinged his ebullient playing. He died of cancer on January 21, 1992.
Champion Jack Dupree's Career
Sang for tips on street corners and became self-taught pianist, New Orleans, LA; sang with New Orleans jazz bands led by Kid Rena and Chris Kelly, mid-1920s; semi-professional boxer at Kid Green's Boxing School, New Orleans; traveled Illinois Central Railroad, working as a singer and prizefighter; left boxing, became house pianist at C. Ferguson's Cotton Club, and signed with Okeh Records, 1940; moved to New York City and made records for Joe Davis and other labels, beginning in 1945; toured England, 1959; moved to Europe, 1960, and recorded and toured widely, playing concerts, clubs, and festivals; appeared in film If You Got the Feelin', 1973.
- Selective Works
- Junker Blues 1940-41 (includes "Gamblin' Man Blues" and "Cabbage Greens"), Travelin' Man.
- (With Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee) Slow Boogie, Folkways, 1942.
- Fisherman's Blues, Joe Davis, 1945.
- Blues From the Gutter, Atlantic, 1958, reissued, 1992.
- (With John Mayall and Eric Clapton) Shim-Sham-Shimmy, Decca, 1965.
- Anthologie du Blues, Vogue, 1968.
- Champion Jack Dupree 1977, Isadora, 1977.
- Forever and Ever, Bullseye Blues, 1992.
- One Last Time, Bullseye Blues/Rounder, 1993.
- I'm Happy to Be Free, GNP/Crescendo.
- New Orleans Barrelhouse Boogie, Legacy.
- Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who's Who, 1979.
- Oliver, Paul, Blackwell Guide to Blues Records, 1989.
- Oliver, Blues off the Record, 1984.
- Periodicals CMJ, August 16, 1993.
- Down Beat, May 1994.
- Jazz Journal International, May 1992.
- Rolling Stone, June 27, 1991.