Given his involvement with so many chart-topping radio hits since 1965, it is astonishing that so few people—including guitarists—have heard of Cornell Dupree. Yet there is little doubt they’ve heard him play. For almost half a century, AM and FM radio stations—and now internet-radio channels—have been broadcasting tunes he played on many times a day.
Commercial hits that featured his unique
playing include crooner Brook Benton’s 1969
smash “Rainy Night in Georgia,” Aretha
Franklin’s soulful 1971 hit “Rock Steady,”
Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” and former
Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter’s
“Letter to Britannia from the Union Jack.”
Jazz fans have heard him on records by everyone
from Buddy Rich and Carmen McRae
to Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Miles Davis.
Cornell Dupree played on so many sessions
during his lifetime that his nickname of “Mr.
2500” could easily be an understatement.
But those who have only heard him on a
hit record are missing much of the Dupree
experience—because, as his solo records and
band-fronting live shows prove, he was also
a skilled purveyor of singing melodies and
blues-drenched solos. It is in those contexts
that it is easiest to understand the words of
session bassist Will Lee (David Letterman,
Fab Faux), who did countless studio and
live dates with Dupree: “He was pure heart
The Early Years
Cornell Luther Dupree Jr. (December
19,1942–May 8, 2011) was born to Cornell
and Bernice Dupree in Fort Worth, Texas.
Though Dupree’s father played guitar a bit
at parties, it was his grandfather’s fiddle that
first caught the younger Cornell’s ear as a
child. Given his Fort Worth upbringing, it’s
not surprising that Dupree was exposed to
more country and western than R&B—save
for his mother’s gospel piano playing and the
blues and R&B on radio station KNOK.
Dupree soon figured out some boogie-woogie
on the piano, but the first instrument
that truly attracted him was the
saxophone. At 11, he began lessons and
played the horn through junior high school,
including in the marching band. But by
then Dupree had started frequenting local
venues where artists including Ray Charles
and B.B. King performed. On one of
these fateful nights, he saw the flamboyant
Johnny “Guitar” Watson at a Masonic Hall.
Virtually overnight, he was begging his
mother for a 6-string.
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