Champion Jack Dupree


Champion Jack Dupree  Junker Blues 1940-41 (Travelin' Man TM 807)



The life and career of William Thomas Champion lack Dupree have been well documented in the notes to Interstate's two previous compilations ‘The Joe Davis Sides 1944-5' (Red Pepper 701) and ‘Rub A Little Boogie 1945-53' (Krazy Kat KK7401) and therefore require little repetition here. To up-date matters, he has just celebrated his 75th birthday 14th July 1985), still tours energetically and currently resides in West Germany.

This latest compilation features titles that were made for Okeh records in Chicago when Dupree was thirty. The compositions that appear here show him to have been a lyricist of considerable imagination and a surprising degree of social awareness seasoned with ironic humour as well as a pianist whose New Orleans style had combined with those of Indianapolis to produce a unique form of barrelhouse playing.

Dupree's first session, at which he recorded eight songs, was held on Thursday 13th June 1940 in company with Indianapolis bassist Wilson Swain. The initial release ‘Warehouse Man' does not as the title would suggest solely concern warehousemen. The welfare authorities of the day were attempting to combat vitamin C deficiency amongst the Negro and poor White populations by giving relief recipients tinned grapefruit juice. This was seen as some sort of confidence trick on the part of the government: “My grandma left this morning with her basket in her hand she's going down to the warehouse to see the warehouse man. She got down to the warehouse then white folks say it ain't no use for the government ain't giving out nothing but that canned grapefruit juice”. This piece of socio-political polemic was coupled with the equally powerful ‘Chain Gang' on which Dupree's rolling New Orleans piano nicely carries the sardonic lyric: “They took me to the courthouse and this is what the judge said I show you how to run round these corners and knock people in the head”. One can imagine that at the time these two sides must have had quite an impact on their purchasers. On ‘Gamblin Man Blues' Dupree and Swain are joined by guitarist Bill Gaither who had been in the same studio the day before and being an old friend from Indianapolis may have gone along to the studio to give moral support by sitting in on the first title. The lyric here transforms a traditional theme into something highly personal, “My wife give me a dollar told me go and do the best I can if you don t make me no money don t come home with no change”.

The session also featured two versions recorded one after the other of the romping double-entendre ‘Cabbage Greens' featuring boogie piano and slapped bass. The first of these was coupled with the up tempo ‘Black Woman Swing' sung to the tune of Leroy Carr's ‘Low Down Dog Blues' while the second was paired with ‘Angola Blues' another prison song this time about the notorious Louisiana State penitentiary (the institution where Leadbelly Robert Pete Williams and James Booker had all served time). The harshness and horror of prison life is sung about by Dupree in menacing terms with equally effective piano accompaniment, while the delights of freedom are ironically understated: “Angola is a place where you ought not wanna go if you go to Angola they re liable to not see you no more. They tell me Angola ain't nothing but a County Farm it's close to St. Gabriel you know I'd rather be at home”.

Champion Jack's next session at which only four songs were recorded was not until January the following year. ‘Bad Health', which proves that you can sing about TB without plagiarising Victoria Spivey's famous number, catalogues the infectious and debilitating effects of tuberculosis and is sung to some strident piano accompaniment. Then five days later he was back to cut another four numbers, two of which were very explicit blues about drug use. ‘Junker Blues' the term apparently being derived from the junks which transported opium around China and ‘Weed Head Woman' both warn of the perils of cocaine heroin marihuana and alcohol; each song nevertheless also a showcase for Dupree's wry sense of humour and superlative playing. In later years a fellow New Orleans native Antoine Fats Domino was to take the tune and phrasing of ‘Junker Blues' change the lyric and score his first big hit (excuse the pun) with a song he called ‘The Fat Man'. In direct contrast ‘Dupree Shake Dance' is basically a stop time dance tune based on ‘Pinetop's Boogie Woogie'. Dupree is enabled by some brilliant string bass work to play left and right hand parts that are often conceived almost as independent voices.

Jack's last visit to the Okeh studio was in November 1941 when he recorded eight numbers of which only half were released on 78. For the session a new ingredient was introduced in the form of electric guitarist Jesse Ellery. Ellery was another native of Indianapolis and as Naptown guitarists went had the reputation of being second only to Scrapper Blackwell. In 1958 he and Blackwell were found to still be living in Naptown by Art Rosenbaum.

The session commenced with Dupree pop crooning on ‘All Alone' (to a tune suspiciously close to Lil Green's recording of ‘Romance In The Dark' on which discographers believe him to play) in the fashion of Leroy Carr rendering an Irving Berlin song but Dupree's lyric is a far cry from Tin Pan Alley: “I m all alone all through the day while my wife working on the WPA and I'm sitting home waiting on a whole month's pay”. ‘Big Time Mama', which reverts to the more usual hook line ‘Big Fat Mama' halfway through, features some outstanding playing from Ellery and muscular boogie figures from Dupree. ‘Both Heavy Heart' and the oddly titled ‘Morning Tea' are blues about infidelity and two-timing women' the latter with a last line of rare eroticism and the former including a couplet whose poetic empathy expresses all: “I look out my window and I see you on the street. The load your heart be carrying be too heavy for your feet”. It would appear from the lyric of the enigmatically titled ‘Jackie P Blues' that the song celebrates the activities of a Naptown pimp. It seems that he was so successful at his chosen profession that even the sporting women of New Orleans the South's doyennes of the oldest profession would be impressed.

In later years Champion Jack Dupree became very bitter about these recordings because Chicago producer Lester Melrose claimed composer credits to all of them. What this album represents is a true testament to a bluesman his creative processes and his art and fortunately no amount of falsehoods can deny Jack Dupree the true genius he displays on these sixteen tracks.  Alan Balfour July 1985

Thanks to Chris Smith, John Cowley and Bruce Bastin for invaluable assistance.