Album of the Week: Champion Jack Dupree’s Blues From the Gutter (1958)

“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.

Album of the Week: Jackson C. Frank’s S/T (AKA Blues Run the Game) (1965)

When times are tough, you can be thankful that you’re not Jackson C. Frank. I think I found out about the late folk-singer’s story in a RYM thread titled something like “Which musician had the worst life?”

Here’s a rundown: As a child in suburban Buffalo, NY, the young Frank survived a school explosion in which his friends and girlfriend died and he himself suffered severe burns that would cause lifelong injuries. After modest success from his debut, his mental health began to unravel. He married and his young son died of cystic fibrosis. He later became destitute and sick, occasionally sleeping on the streets of New York City. Sitting on a bench in Queens, he was shot in the eye by kids with a pellet gun and blinded. In 1999, he died of pneumonia in Massachusetts at the age of 56, poor, alone and unknown.

Fortunately for us, Frank’s only studio album is not quite as depressing as his life story. The blues are present, sure, but from the opener “Blues Run the Game” you can hear a sweetness in his voice, melodies and strumming. The talent is palpable. Apparently Frank was quite shy about singing around anyone, including his producer Paul Simon (yes, that Paul Simon). It’s not difficult to assume he was traumatized by his childhood. Which is a shame, not just for obvious psychological reasons, but because he had a great range and was more than able to carry a tune. “Here Come the Blues” is as righteous a blues song as one written by the great masters of the American south.

The second half of Frank’s album is even stronger than the A-side. The fingerpicking of “Milk and Honey” was atmospheric enough to be sampled on rapper Nas’s appropriately depressing “Undying Love”. This ballad was also covered by such folk luminaries as Bonnie Dobson, Sandy Denny (who dated Frank for a time) and Nick Drake (who recorded several Frank songs before his own death). “My Name is Carnival” has the mystical folk vibe of a group like Pentangle. “You Never Wanted Me” is a bittersweet closer, perhaps more upbeat than you might expect from the title.

On the reissue/streaming version we get some interesting bonus tracks. “Marlene”, a tribute to his childhood girlfriend who died in their school fire, is achingly beautiful and personal. One need only listen to the lyrics to get an idea of the singer’s pain. Some of the other songs are poorly recorded or preserved, as you can hear the tape messing up in “The Visit” and “Prima Donna of Swans”, but for me this is an endearing quality. It is unclear to me when the songs were recorded, but what is clear is that Jackson C. Frank could have made another great album with the proper variables permitting.

A French documentary film, Blues Run the Game – The Strange Tale of Jackson C. Frank, is currently in post-production. You can see an excerpt of it on Youtube here (it is quite sad).

Listen to Jackson C. Frank here.

Album of the Week: B.B. King’s Live in Cook County Jail (1971)

I was a pretentious music nerd as a young age, collecting records and correcting those who got their facts wrong by the start of high school. This got me in the most trouble when my French teacher made an aside about “Stand By Me” being a great song by B.B. King. I quickly corrected her – “Stand By Me” is, of course, by Ben E. King – so rudely that she kicked me out into the hallway in front of the entire class.

Hopefully my behavior is less contemptible now, but for years this was my only real knowledge of B.B. King – he was the guy who didn’t make “Stand By Me”. Well, what did he do? Blues, presumably. But the only CD of his I frequently saw in stores and my stepdad’s collection was 2000’s Riding with the King, an album whose cover art practically screams “We, the makers of this album, are over 50 years old, and to enjoy it you should be too.” Riding with the King is probably his most successful album, but if this were that Drake meme format I would wave it away with one hand and then point happily to Live in Cook County Jail. This shit is smokin’ hot.

Yes, Johnny Cash did it first, with At Folsom Prison for Columbia almost three years earlier. That album was a hit, and presumably encouraged ABC to get excited about the opportunity to record King doing the very same. As the story goes, one (or more) of the wardens at Cook County Jail in Chicago reached out to King in 1970 and the performance was arranged in September. Cook County was not the place you wanted to be and I’m sure it still isn’t. Today it has one of the largest inmate populations in America at about 10,000 (In 1970 the inmate population was closer to 2000) and it has a nasty history of racism, violence and injustice. You couldn’t get me do a week’s time there if I knew Frank Ocean and the ghost of Jerry Garcia were playing a double-header for the inmates. Before his performance King walked around the site before the show and, according to The Independent, “his experience at the jail affected him profoundly.” I’m sure his empathy for the inmates inspired him to give them a damn good show, and today it remains a treat for us listeners.

After a staff member’s introduction in which the wardens are hilariously booed by the inmates, King starts off with the uptempo “Everyday I Have the Blues”. He was reportedly nervous, which may explain why this track is so fast. Thankfully, things slow down after that and we get into the best run of the album. “How Blue Can You Get?” and “Worry, Worry, Worry” are both absolute show-stoppers. King somehow manages to play the role of tortured blues singer, electric guitar god and standup comedian all at once. Listen to the pain in his voice when he cries “I gave you seven children / And now you wanna give ’em back!” That’s the blues, baby! On both tracks, he shreds his Gibson “Lucille” for a few minutes and then switches into master storyteller mode. The encouragement of the crowd’s hollers, laughter and applause really fuels both King and the backing band. It’s pure magic.

On the second side King slides into a more relaxed groove where he plays some older hits because, in his words, “I think a lot of the things we let go sometimes are the things we cherish most later on.” You might not want to cover “Sweet Sixteen” today, but it’s a crowd favorite here and a late highlight of the set. He gets cookin’ towards the end of his big hit “The Thrill Is Gone” as well. The last track, “Please Accept My Love”, cuts quickly to an end-of-set fanfare, and I have to imagine that some of the set was edited for album release. It would be fun if we could get an unabridged version like At Folsom Prison got in 2008. As it stands though, Live at Cook County Jail is a concise and remarkable recording.

Listen to Live at Cook County Jail here.