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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 and soul.”
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.