January 21, 1992 – William Thomas Dupree best known as Champion Jack Dupree was arguably born on July 4, 10, or 23, in the years 1908, 1909, or 1910. What is not argued is however that New Orleans was the place he was born. His father was from the Belgian Congo, his mother was part Black 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, where he taught himself piano 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.
His life of traveling took him to Chicago, where he worked with Georgia Tom, and to Indianapolis, where he met Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr. In Detroit he met Joe Louis, who encouraged him to become a boxer. So he 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 aged 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 Jack’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.
After the war his biggest commercial success became “Walkin’ the Blues”, which he recorded as a duet with Teddy McRae. This led to several national tours, and eventually to a European tour.
He was accompanied on guitar by Larry Dale, on his best known album, ”Blues from the Gutter” in 1959 whose playing inspired Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. He 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.
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 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”.
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 in Halifax, England and a piano used by Dupree was later re-discovered at Calderdale College in Halifax.
Dupree continued to record in Europe with Kenn Lending Band, Louisiana Red and Axel Zwingenberger and made many live appearances, all the while still working as a cook specializing in New Orleans cuisine. In later years he recorded with John Mayall, Mick Taylor, Eric Clapton and The Band.He returned to the United States from time to time and appeared at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
He died in Hanover, Germany of cancer on January 21, 1992 at age 82.