“I was born in New Orleans on July 4, 1910. My father and mother were burned up in a fire when I was a kid, and I was sent to an orphanage.”
So begins the life of Champion Jack Dupree, according to the original back cover of Blues From the Gutter. A couple months ago on GSG, Jackson C. Frank told you that blues run the game, and poor Jackson dealt with a devastating fire early on in his life too. But the clearest difference between them is apparent from one glance at their album covers: Frank was a white man from New York, and Dupree was a black man from New Orleans. And it doesn’t get more Bluesy than down at the mouth of the Mississippi.
As a young man in the Depression-era South, Dupree learned piano from his mentor Willie “Drive ‘Em Down” Hall. Playing in clubs for $1.50 an hour, Dupree said he “was lucky to get [even] that”. To make ends meet, Dupree took up boxing, which is how he earned the nickname Champion. “In 1940 I fought my last match,” he said. “It was in Indianapolis and I knocked out Battling Bozo in the tenth round.” Around this time, Dupree started recording for the legendary Okeh label (they had a novelty hit in the 20s with the bizarre “OKeh Laughing Record”), before studio albums really existed.
Dupree plays deeply-rooted Blues, but one thing I really enjoy about him is his sense of humor. “Man, slow down, don’t walk so fast!” are the first words heard on Blues from the Gutter, Dupree’s first album. “Walkin’ Blues” had existed for a couple decades already, but Dupree gave it a stroll. The “Gutter” title likely comes from the inclusion of several songs about drugs. This concept wasn’t totally new, but Dupree certainly possessed a lyrical and vocal dexterity to the subject that stands out among 50s recordings. He demonstrates the two sides to the life of a drug user: “I hung around my friends that smoke reefer, I thought I was doin’ alright… But this dope is killin’ me” he sings on “Can’t Kick the Habit”. Then later, on “Junker’s Blues,” “Oh yes, I’m a junker… but I feel good all the time!”
In terms of the music, it’s tight as can be. Dupree was famously noted as a “Boogie-Woogie” pianist, but this only really comes through clearly on “Nasty Boogie”. It’s great, but I’m glad we get more hard-line blooze on most of the album. The backing band puts in work: that electric guitar on “T.B. Blues” rips, and “Bad Blood” contains a thrilling solo as well. The records wraps up with “Stack-O-Lee”, one of the most covered blues standards out (even The Grateful Dead made it a live staple for some years).
A little Google searching led me to this wonderful video of Champion Jack Dupree playing live in 1990. Starting slowly with “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living”, the 80 year old Dupree sings with a wry smile, “I can’t use no flowers when I’m dead”. At about the 3:25 mark, none other than Allen Touissant sneaks up behind him and starts playing the piano’s highest keys. Their faces are both shining with joy. A couple minutes later, they’ve moved on to “Shake the Boogie”, and Toussaint takes over on piano while Dupree stands up to dance. Shaking his hips back and forth, he has the crowd in the palm of his hands. Sipping a beer and twinkling the keys away into a finale, the people erupt with applause. “The Champion,” Touissant says, “The Undisputed Champion.”
Listen to Blues From the Gutter on Spotify.