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  William Thomas Dupree (1909–1992), by David Redfern, 1990 William Thomas Dupree (1909–1992), by David Redfern, 1990
Dupree, William Thomas [known as Champion Jack Dupree] (1909–1992), boxer and blues pianist, claimed in official documentation to have been born on 4 July 1909 in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, the son of George Dupree and his wife Georgiana, née Washington, whose plantation names revealed their slave ancestry. His father was reputedly of part Congolese and his mother of part Cherokee Indian descent. Other sources have cited both earlier and later variations of his date of birth. The uncertainty derives in part from a lack of definitive evidence and possibly also Dupree's own retrospective preference for an independence day birthday anniversary. The mystery may also derive from the tragic loss of both parents when he was scarcely a year old, in an arson attack on their general store by the Ku Klux Klan, which resulted in his upbringing at the city's Colored Waifs Home for Boys, where coincidentally Louis Armstrong had been raised.

Encouraged to take up the piano by an Italian priest, having learned to play by ear at the orphanage, Dupree was adopted by the altruistic Olivia Gardner after he left the orphanage at the age of fourteen and developed his distinctive barrelhouse performing style under the tutelage of the boogie pianist Drive 'Em Down (Willie Hall) in the New Orleans speakeasies during the prohibition era. He was also introduced to boxing at a city gym, and after moving north during the depression to escape the racial tensions of New Orleans he was introduced to the future world champion Joe Louis in Detroit. He subsequently fought 107 bouts himself, winning the lightweight championship in Indianapolis and the sobriquet of Champion Jack Dupree after sparring against the world champions Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey in the 1930s. He won his last fight in 1940 by delivering a knock-out blow to Battling Bozo.

Dupree had married his first wife Ruth in 1930 and they later moved to Chicago, where he recorded songs for Lester Melrose's celebrated Okeh label, drawing on both the experience of his deep south American rural past working on the levee and his more recently acquired insights into the shadowy urban underworld of bootleg whisky, drugs, poverty, prison, and prostitution in Indianapolis. Under the guidance of Leroy Carr, his singing and playing style matured, but following the entry of the United States into the Second World War he was drafted into the United States navy as a cook, serving in the Pacific and suffering two years as a Japanese prisoner of war after his ship was torpedoed.

Having divorced his first wife in 1944, after the war Dupree settled in New York, where he rented a redbrick apartment near the Apollo Theatre with another struggling musician, the guitarist Brownie McGhee, recording for some twenty-one different labels including Rum Cola Blues for Joe Davis. He married secondly, in 1948, Lucille Dalton, and ultimately signed a contract with King Records, but his only American rhythm 'n' blues chart success was Walking the Blues, recorded as a duet with Teddy McRae in 1955. In 1958 he moved to Atlantic Records, recording a classic album widely considered to be his masterpiece, Blues from the Gutter, for Jerry Wexler. Its stark warnings of the dangers of drug dependency were powerfully reinforced in his portrayal of an addict seeking to justify his habit on Junker Blues and his acerbic comment, ‘I'm sick as I can be’.

Dupree left New York to travel to Europe, divorcing Lucille after he met an English waitress, Shirley Ann Harrison (b. 1941), at a London club. They moved to Copenhagen, where Dupree recorded for Storyville Records, and later to Zurich, before returning to settle in Shirley's hometown of Halifax, living unpretentiously on a council estate ‘amongst the ordinary people’ (T. Simpson, Small town Saturday night, 2008, 119). His British single ‘Whiskey Head Woman’ (1962) was a salute to Shirley, a Yorkshire boiler firer's daughter, whom he married in a Halifax civil ceremony on Christmas eve 1969, after she had already adopted his surname by deed poll and borne him their elder daughter, Georgiana, in 1966, and while she was pregnant with their second daughter, Jackie (b. 1970). Their Halifax home became the base for his wide-ranging tours, and was where he welcomed a host of celebrity guests from Britain and the United States, including Louis Armstrong, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, and Eric Clapton, to sample his New Orleans cuisine, including his speciality dish of fish with red beans, rice, and black-eyed peas.

As one of the very earliest African-American residents in Halifax, Dupree became an easily recognized, charismatic, and flamboyant character in the town with his wiry, receding dark hair, his thin elongated moustache, his trademark cigarettes, gold teeth, gold-ringed fingers, and diamond studded left ear. His Lincoln Continental station wagon with its rear lace curtains and his name embossed in gold leaf on the doors proclaiming his New Orleans credentials was a familiar if incongruous sight on the streets of the northern manufacturing town from the 1960s until the 1980s. Besides his touring engagements he performed at folk clubs on both sides of the Pennines, ranging from the Manchester Sports Guild and Burnley Mechanics to an assortment of Halifax venues, including the local Women's Institute with their floral dresses, knitted hats, and headscarves and a local primary school, where he dazzled his juvenile audience by rolling both his knuckles and his finger tips across the piano keyboard. His later concerts in England were often interspersed with humorous repartee and included a slightly risqué rendering of his signature ‘Sheik of Araby’. His versatility secured him bookings for both blues and rock venues, and he appeared at both Ronnie Scott's and the Marquee Club, and alongside the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

After Dupree and his third wife Shirley divorced in 1976 he spent more time abroad in Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland, developing a love of painting. He returned to New Orleans in 1990 for an acclaimed performance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and to Chicago in 1991 for the Chicago Blues Festival. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the latter year and died in Hanover, Germany, on 21 January 1992, nursed by the youngest of the eleven children of his three marriages, Jackie, a Halifax care worker, who travelled to Germany to be with her father. After a memorial service in Hanover on 27 January and cremation, his ashes were scattered at sea.

Following the blues revival of the 1960s Dupree had become one of the most prolific recording and performing blues artists of all time. He was honoured posthumously by being elected to the Hall of Fame by the Blues Foundation, when his Blues from the Gutter album was designated a classic, and by a bronze plaque at Dean Clough, Halifax, unveiled by his daughter Georgiana on 14 February 2003. His rollicking style influenced a generation of talented musical performers including Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Lloyd Price, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds. Moreover his legendary status as a musician conferred upon him an enduring social influence in the sphere of race relations. Exposed to racial injustice from an early age, he concluded that just as a piano keyboard comprised both black and white keys and ‘you got to mix these keys together to make harmony’ so ‘what the whole world needs’ is racial ‘harmony’ based upon respect and equality, which he assiduously promoted (T. Russell, The Blues—from Robert Johnson to Robert Cray, 1997, 107–8).

John A. Hargreaves

Sources  

Halifax Evening Courier (25 Nov 1967); (18 Jan 2003); (10 Nov 2008); (19 Nov 2008); (26 Feb 2009) · P. Gammond, The Oxford companion to popular music (1991), 168 · transcript of interview with L. Wertheimer, ‘All things considered’ radio show with J. Wexler, National Public Radio, 21 Jan 1992 · New York Times (22 Jan 1992) · Chicago Sun-Times (22 Jan 1992) · The Independent (22 Jan 1992); (21 Feb 1992) · The Guardian (23 Jan 1992); (28 Jan 1992) · Daily Mail (27 Jan 1992) · The Times (9 Jan 1992) · G. Johnson, ‘Champion Jack Dupree’, Blues Notes [Cascade Blues Association] (May 1999) · T. Simpson, Small town Saturday night, 2: More pop music memories of Halifax in the sixties (2008), 114–22 · S. Wirz, illustrated discography, Aug 2011, www.wirz.de/music/duprefrm.htm, accessed on 2 Jan 2012 · ‘Champion Jack Dupree’, Gale musician profiles (1989–2010) · ‘Champion Jack Dupree’, Ace music guide: pop artists (2011) · personal knowledge (2012) · private information (2012) [T. Simpson; St Malachi's Over-Sixties Club, Ovenden] · m. cert. [1969]

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FILM

 

BFI NFTVA, light entertainment footage


Likenesses  

photographs, 1940–90, Getty Images, London [see illus.] · photographs, 1960–90, Rex Features, London · obituary photographs · photographs, repro. in T. Simpson, Small town