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Will Lee recalls the sort of inventiveness and spontaneity that led to Dupree’s first-call status. “I can remember my first Cornell experience vividly,” says the legendary bassist. “It was on Don Covay’s ‘Overtime Man’ session. What was astounding was that every take would start with him playing a completely different, amazing guitar intro. I said to him, ‘That was great—but why did you change it from the one before?’ He said, ‘Because I have no idea what I played.’”
The Solo Years
By 1973, Dupree’s star had risen enough for Atlantic to offer him a solo record deal. His debut, Teasin’, is rife with soulful blues excursions and signature Dupree double-stops. Through the ’70s, Dupree also played live gigs around New York City with longtime friend and bassist Gordon Edwards’ group the Encyclopedia of Soul. Edwards echoes Wexler’s assessment of Dupree’s ability to cover multiple chairs. “Pianos were rough in those days, most of the time half the keys were gone and if they weren’t they were out of tune. With Cornell, I could fire the piano player because he played chords and melody at the same time,” says the bassist.
The Encyclopedia of Soul evolved into a session-player supergroup called Stuff that consisted of Dupree, Eric Gale, pianist Richard Tee, and drummers Steve Gadd and/or Chris Parker. A regular gig at a Manhattan club called Mikell’s allowed the members to keep busy in the studios during the day. “We played onstage just like we played behind the artists,” says Edwards. “If we laid down a groove in bar one, by bar 955 we were still playing that same groove.”
A snapshot of Dupree at a session in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Gordon Edwards
The band was signed by Warner Brothers and released six records for the label. Though it occasionally sounded like they were vamping until the singer entered, musicians appreciated the records as a master class in soulful band interaction. “We never stepped on each other’s toes,” recalls Edwards. “It was like a polite conversation.” In 2008, a DVD of a 1976 Montreux gig was released, offering a close-up look at this monster groove machine to those who missed them in their heyday.
Stuff ‘s breakup in 1982 coincided with a dip in New York session work, which prompted a move to Beverly Hills. The Los Angeles scene proved hard to crack, but Dupree eventually landed a gig backing Bonnie Raitt, as well as a chance to cut the theme to The Cosby Show. With more work coming from New York than Los Angeles, Dupree moved back in 1985, where he did dates with jazz musicians including Hank Crawford and Michael Franks, and vocalist Lou Rawls.
Dupree picks an early-’60s Guild Starfire III with two DeArmond single-coils and a Bigsby B6 tremolo as he shares the mic with King Curtis at a 1966 record-release party for Percy Sledge. Photo by William “PoPsie” Randolph
In the latter part of his career, Dupree focused on live performance with various groups. Live work in Europe and Japan kept him busy through 2010, and he played his last gig at New York’s Iridium club on September 26th, 2010, at which time he was suffering from chronic emphysema. Dupree decided to return once more to Texas to work on his last solo record, but once he was there his health steadily deteriorated and he died May 8, 2011, at the age of 68.
Cornell Dupree’s name may never spread much farther than a select cadre of musicians and liner-note aficionados, but there is no doubt his combination of Lone Star grit and Big Apple sophistication will continue to be widely enjoyed as the hit records he helped make are played—in whatever form—in perpetuity.