William Thomas Dupree’s date of birth is debatable—sometime in July of either 1909 or 1910. And the cause of the fire that left him an orphan at the age of two is also sketchy—sometimes he said it had been an accident, and sometimes he said that it had been set by the Ku Klux Klan. What is known is that from then on, Dupree grew up in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, where Louis Armstrong had also spent his childhood. He taught himself to play piano and was later apprenticed by Tuts Washington and Willie Hall. As if that wasn’t enough New Orleans childhood cred, Dupree was also Spy Boy for the Yellow Pocahantas tribe of Mardi Gras Indians.
The 1930’s were spent traveling around the midwest, living in Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit, where he met Joe Louis. Joe encouraged him to pursue professional boxing, which Dupree did, with gusto—he fought in 107 bouts and won the Golden Gloves. He earned the nickname “Champion Jack” and kept it for the rest of his life.
Dupree moved back to Chicago in 1940, where he was introduced to Okeh record producer Lester Melrose. He liked Dupree’s boogie-woogie take on the blues, and set him up to record eight songs in one day. The disc I found in the archive was the second release from that session. With able, at times percussive, accompaniment from Wilson Swain on bass, here’s “Black Woman Swing,” a story of being down on your luck, being taken in by a good woman, and then finding out maybe she isn’t so good after all.
Dupree had worked as a chef on and off over the course of his life, so it made sense that so many of his songs referenced the food from his hometown. The B side, “Cabbage Greens No. 1,” is the very earliest example of this.
Dupree was only a moderate drinker, but he mined the alcoholic and narcotic excesses of others for the benefit of his own songs. Perhaps his first take on this subject was 1941’s “Junker’s Blues,” which would later inspire Fats Domino’s debut single, “The Fat Man.”
Jack joined the Navy and fought in the Second World War, spending two years in a Japanese prison camp. When he got back to the States, he recorded with a number of different New York City-based labels—Joe Davis, Jazz Parade, Apollo, King, and Red Robin, which released this rockin’ number in 1954: “Shim Sham Shimmy.”
“Shim Sham Shimmy” proved that Dupree could play rock and roll with the best of them (having Brownie McGhee on distorted guitar certainly didn’t hurt) but his heart was still in the blues, as 1955’s “Walkin’ the Blues,” his biggest hit, demonstrated.
1958 saw Dupree recording perhaps his most respected album, Atlantic’s Blues From the Gutter. Everything comes together to create a sound that swings harder than a suburban key party, thanks in no small part to the rhythm section of Wendell Marshall on bass and Willie Jones on drums. “Nasty Boogie” is proof.
In 1959, Dupree left the United States to live in Switzerland. He would spend the rest of his days living all over Europe—Denmark, Sweden, Britain, and ultimately, Germany. He remained a prolific recording artist and performer. 1963’s “I Just Want to Be Free” is as good an explanation as any of why he chose the life of an expatriate.
The joy Jack felt when performing was infectious, as this 1964 clip from British television clearly shows. Or at least that joy would be infectious if he hadn’t been playing for the winners of the BBC’s “Britain’s Least Lively Students” contest. Being a pro, Jack doesn’t let the stiffs bring him down.
One lively Briton, at least in 1966, was Eric Clapton, who provided a tasty acoustic guitar solo for this Decca recording of Bessie Smith’s classic “Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.”
Champion Jack Dupree continued to record and perform until 1991, the year before he died. In 1990, he turned to New Orleans for the first time in 36 years to record some songs and perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. He died on January 21, 1992, in his home in Hanover, Germany.