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Forgotten Heroes: Cornell Dupree

Besides playing on so many sessions and hits that they called him “Mr. 2500,” Cornell Dupree was a favorite of major-label producers and superstars alike because he could come in and lay down tight, soulful tracks for Aretha Franklin, and then show up the next day to hit a home run for Paul Simon or Miles Davis.

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 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.

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.

In Sessions
Recommendations from Rainey and guitarist Eric Gale—who would later become Dupree’s bandmate in the jazz-funk band Stuff—brought Dupree a steady stream of session work in New York. More fortuitously, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, who had first met Dupree at a live recording date at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1965, was soon using the guitarist on sessions in New York, Miami, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In the liner notes to Dupree’s 1994 solo album, Bop ’n’ Blues’, Wexler described what made him so valuable in the studio: “It was our practice to use three or even more guitarists on a record session. Time and again what we would get into was a hellacious mess as the three guitarists got in each other’s way,’’ said Wexler. “So when Dupree, the pride of Fort Worth, came to our rescue, it was bye-bye to multiple guitarists because—miraculously, it seemed to me—one man playing rhythm and lead at the same time took the place of three.’’

Dupree’s big breakthrough came in 1969, with a session he did for another Atlantic producer, Arif Mardin, in 1969. He backed Brook Benton on the Tony Joe White tune “Rainy Night in Georgia,” and the flowing, parallel-fourth double-stops and sliding-sixth fills he’d played on the hit had his phone ringing off the hook.

By 1971, videos show that Dupree had started playing a Fender Telecaster to help him cut through dense live and recorded mixes. The pickguard had been removed, and the screw holes had been filled with large metal bolts that gave it a studded appearance. It also had a Gretsch-style DeArmond pickup between the neck and bridge pickups. An additional control plate under the original appears to have held an extra knob and switch, no doubt to control the middle pickup.

Dupree eventually collaborated with Yamaha and began playing a Tele-style instrument that was marketed as the Cornell Dupree model. And with a humbucker in the neck position, a single-coil-sized blade humbucker in the middle, and a Tele-style bridge pickup it was a versatile machine. Toward the end of his career, Dupree was seen primarily with Yamaha Pacifica Tele-style instruments.

The ’70s and ’80s saw two decades of constant session work with some of the biggest names in the business including Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Donny Hathaway, and Mariah Carey. But he wasn’t just playing for commercially successful vocalists. He also tracked sessions with heavyweight jazz artists such as David “Fathead” Newman, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Herbie Mann, Grover Washington Jr., Billy Cobham, and Sonny Stitt. And his rock and pop gigs included stints with Joe Cocker, Ian Hunter, and Carly Simon.

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.

Musical Immortality
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.

Hallmarks of Dupree’s Style
For 35 years, Cornell Dupree made his name in recording studios on the strength of his ability to lay down tracks combining rock-solid rhythm with perfect fills. Whether soloing or comping, Dupree’s right utilized a unique hybrid picking style where a downstroke often alternated with upstroke brushes of the picking-hand fingers. Check out Aretha Franklin’s version of the Carole King tune “Oh No Not My Baby” from her 1970 album Spirit in the Dark (it’s on YouTube)—you can hear how much of Jimi Hendrix’s rhythm style is essentially “Dupree on 10”—no surprise given how the players evolved together, often discussing mutual influences like Curtis Mayfield and Albert King.

“He can make a guitar talk,” is a phrase that has been applied to a number of players through the years, including Dupree. Though he primarily played rhythm guitar on the hits, on his own records—or sessions where a solo or melody was called for—he displayed a vocal-like tone and phrasing. That he supported so many great singers of the era is probably not a coincidence.

Below are two figures that illustrate the quintessential Cornell Dupree stylings.

Fig. 1 echoes the type of parallel fourths that grace Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia.” They’re over a G chord here, but they can be employed over Cmaj7 and D major chords, as well. In the last measure, we use a little slight-of-hand by only striking the D on beat one and the A on beat two and sliding into the final double stop.

Fig. 2 illustrates the types of parallel-sixth fills Dupree liked to play in both R&B and country tunes. In the first measure we stay within the diatonic scale except for the Eb on the “and” of beat three. This chromatic move sets up the implied G7 sound (F and D) to give it a bluesy feel.

Watch Cornell play with Stuff's Richard Tee and bassist Will Lee in this 1992 video: