Bernice obtained a sunburst Stella acoustic from a pawnshop, and the 14-year-old Dupree started learning licks from local pickers. By 1956, he had a Harmony hollowbody with a DeArmond pickup and he’d formed a band with a couple of guitar-playing friends named Frank Lott and Calvin Love. The three young musicians played a mostly instrumental repertoire at talent shows and at local clubs on Sunday afternoons.

Two players whose influence is evident in Dupree’s style were Bobby Bland’s guitarist Wayne Bennett, as well as Billy Butler—the man who played the classic solo on Bill Doggett’s 1956 instrumental hit “Honky Tonk.” Cornell bought the Doggett single and learned the solo note-for-note on his Gibson Les Paul Custom, which he replaced with a TV-yellow Les Paul Junior when the Custom was lost in a fire.

Dupree’s musical education continued when he was hired to play with U.P. Wilson’s band, where he played rhythm on Wilson’s Stratocaster while the leader soloed on Dupree’s Les Paul Junior. The late ’50s found Dupree playing with Leon Childs’ Hi Tones, as well as Louis Howard & the Red Hearts.

While venturing out from Fort Worth with these bands, Dupree was exposed to music of many styles and crossed paths with cream-of-the-crop Texas musicians. These included blues artists such as T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson, Albert Collins, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Fenton Robinson, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, as well as country stars like Ray Price, Bob Wills, and Roger Miller. Dupree may have even run across avant-garde jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who was also from Fort Worth.

King Curtis and Jimi Hendrix

Cornell Dupree in the late ’70s or early ’80s
with his modified Fender Telecaster.
Photo courtesy of Gordon Edwards
In 1959, 17-year-old Dupree married Erma Kindles. And country star Delbert McClinton asserts that, by 18—barely out of high school—Dupree had a reputation as one of the best blues guitarists in the area. 1961 would be a pivotal year in his career: While visiting Texas, R&B sax player King Curtis sat in with Louis Howard & the Red Hearts at the Paradise Club. Before returning to his home base of New York City, Curtis told Dupree to keep on practicing and “one of these days I will send for you.” True to his word, he called the guitarist the very next year and had him audition over the phone by playing Curtis’ then-new hit “Soul Twist,” as well as the standard “Moonlight in Vermont.”

Apparently, Dupree had been practicing, because Curtis promptly sent him a ticket to New York. On October 1, 1962, Dupree and Erma arrived in Manhattan, leaving their two children in the care of Dupree’s mother and grandfather. The day after his first plane ride, the Texas guitar man was onstage with King Curtis and the Kingpins and learning the rest of the repertoire onstage. The Duprees lived with Curtis, and the Kingpins played weekends at Small’s Paradise in Harlem.

At his first recording session, Dupree shared guitar duties with the same Billy Butler whose solo he had diligently learned—and who he would replace in Curtis’ performing band. Switching to a Gibson ES-335, Dupree would sit with Curtis, who played a Guild Starfire, and the two would work out licks and arrangements for the band. Eventually, the sideman exchanged his Gibson for a Guild like his boss’.

From 1962 to 1966, Dupree worked with Curtis backing soul stars of the day. On a 1963 tour supporting Sam Cooke, Dupree ended up on the singer’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 album. These tours often featured Cooke and other artists like Fats Domino and the Isley Brothers. Dupree would trade licks and songs with Cooke’s guitarist Clifton White and Roy Montreal from Fats Domino’s group. He also worked on string bending with the Isley Brothers’ guitarist—James Marshall Hendrix.

Hendrix left the Isleys in 1964 and bounced around the Chitlin’ Circuit with other R&B acts for a bit before Curtis saw him playing with Little Richard and added him to the Kingpins. Playing alongside Cornell, Hendrix helped fill out the sound of the then-keyboard-less band. The showy Hendrix fell naturally into the soloing slot, leaving Dupree to cover rhythm. As with many of his early gigs, however, Hendrix’s deafening volume, flashy dress, and punctuality issues led to his dismissal from Curtis’ group. By 1965, when the Kingpins opened for the Beatles in Canada, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the famous Shea Stadium gig, Hendrix was gone.

This ATCO promo shot shows Dupree with saxophonist King Curtis and James Marshall Hendrix (playing a right-handed Fender Jazzmaster upside down at far right) at a May 5, 1966, record-release party for Percy Sledge.
Photo by William “PoPsie” Randolph

Meanwhile, Dupree kept building his resume. That same year, he joined another legendary session guitarist, Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the MGs, in the studio to back Wilson Pickett on his first hit, “In the Midnight Hour.” At that point, Dupree was playing a Standel thinline equipped with humbuckers through a blackface Fender Twin Reverb. Neither he nor Curtis were happy with how Cornell’s guitar fit in the mix, but he had yet to discover the instrument with which he would come to be identified.

Having earned enough to buy a house and a car in Texas, Dupree left King Curtis’ band and moved back in 1966. Bassist Chuck Rainey, whom he had met while in the Kingpins, had also left the band but had stayed in New York and was getting a lot of session work. Rainey convinced Dupree to return to The Big Apple in 1968, where he rejoined Curtis—and started playing sessions for other artists.