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William Thomas Dupree, best known as Champion Jack Dupree, was an American blues pianist. His birth date is disputed, given as July 4, July 10, and July 23, in the years 1908, 1909, or 1910. He died on January 21, 1992.
Champion Jack Dupree was the embodiment of the New Orleans blues and boogie woogie pianist, a true barrelhouse "professor". His father was from the Belgian Congo and his mother was part African American and Cherokee. He was orphaned at the age of 2 and sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs (also the alma mater of Louis Armstrong).
He taught himself piano there and later apprenticed with Tuts Washington and Willie Hall, whom he called his 'father' and from whom he learned "Junker's Blues". He was also "spy boy" for the Yellow Pochahantas tribe of Mardi Gras Indians and soon began playing in barrelhouses and other drinking establishments.
As a young man he began his life of travelling, living in Chicago, where he worked with Georgia Tom, and in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he met Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr. Whilst he was always playing piano, he also worked as a cook, and in Detroit he met Joe Louis, who encouraged him to become a boxer. He ultimately fought in 107 bouts, winning Golden Gloves and other championships and picking up the nickname 'Champion Jack', which he used the rest of his life.
He returned to Chicago at the age of 30 and joined a circle of recording artists, including Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, who introduced him to the record producer Lester Melrose, who claimed composer credit and publishing on many of Dupree's songs. Dupree's career was interrupted by military service in World War II. He was a cook in the United States Navy and spent two years as a Japanese prisoner of war.
His biggest commercial success was "Walkin' the Blues", which he recorded as a duet with Teddy McRae. This led to several national tours, and eventually to a European tour Dupree moved to Europe in 1960, first settling in Switzerland and then Denmark, England, Sweden and, finally, Germany. During the 1970s and 1980s he lived at Ovenden, near Halifax, England where a bronze plaque has been commissioned in his memory. Details of his time in Yorkshire, including the reminiscences of his family, are to be found at www.smalltownsaturdaynight.co.uk and in the book of the same name . A piano used by Dupree was recently re-discovered by pianist Matthew Bourne at Calderdale College in Halifax.
Dupree continued to record in Europe (with Kenn Lending Band, Louisiana Red and Axel Zwingenberger) and also made many live appearances there, also still working as a cook specializing in New Orleans cuisine. He returned to the United States from time to time and appeared at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Dupree died on 21 January 1992 in Hanover, Germany of cancer.
Musical style and output
Dupree's playing was almost all straight blues and Boogie-woogie. He was not a sophisticated musician or singer, but he had a wry and clever way with words: "Mama, move your false teeth, papa wanna scratch your gums." He sometimes sang as if he had a cleft palate and even recorded under the name Harelip Jack Dupree. This was an artistic conceit, as Dupree had excellent, clear articulation, particularly for a blues singer. Dupree would occasionally indulge in a vocalese style of sung word play, similar to Slim Gaillard's "Vout", as in his "Mr. Dupree Blues" included on the The Complete Blue Horizon Sessions album.
He sang about life, jail, drinking and drug addiction; although he himself was a light drinker and did not use other drugs. His "Junker's Blues" was also transmogrified by Fats Domino into his first hit, "The Fat Man". Dupree's songs included not only gloomy topics, such as "TB Blues" and "Angola Blues" (about Angola Prison, the infamous Louisiana prison farm), but also cheerful subjects like the "Dupree Shake Dance": "Come on, mama, on your hands and knees, do that shake dance as you please".
On his best known album, Blues from the Gutter for Atlantic, in 1959 he was accompanied on guitar by Larry Dale, whose playing on that record inspired Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. Dupree was also noted as a raconteur and transformed many of his stories into songs. "Big Leg Emma's" takes its place in the roots of rap music as the rhymed tale of a police raid on a barrelhouse. In later years he recorded with John Mayall, Mick Taylor and Eric Clapton.
Although Jerry Lee Lewis did not record Dupree's "Shake Baby Shake", the lyrics in his version of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" - "You can shake it one time for me!" - echo Dupree's song.
Although best known as a singer and pianist in the New Orleans style, Dupree occasionally pursued more musically adventurous projects, including Dupree `n` McPhee, a collaboration with English guitarist Tony McPhee, recorded for Blue Horizon Records.