Swingin' the blues

Big Al Dupree makes his recording debut after 72 years

Big Al Dupree sits alone at a table at Back Country Bar-B-Q, happily finishing off a heaping plate of meat and vegetables. This Greenville Avenue restaurant is, by Big Al's estimation, the best barbecue eatery in town--"and I've tried them all," brags the man who's earned the "Big" in front of his name.

Though he's in his early 70s--Dupree was born in 1923 in what used to be called North Dallas, around State and Hall streets--Dupree looks a good 15 years younger than that. And he feels like a young man: The night before this interview, he was crawling around on the floor of his son's beauty salon in Oak Cliff, cleaning up the rubble and debris left after a woman accidentally drove her car through the storefront.

Dupree likes to say his music keeps him young because, after all, he plays the music of his youth--a jump-blues sound rooted in the big-band era, containing audible echoes of Louis Jordan, the Nat "King" Cole Trio, Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He has been playing this music for more than six decades, his resume boasting clubs ranging from the long-defunct Cafe Drugs in the State-Hall area through his weekly stint at the Balcony Club in Lakewood.

The list of artists with whom Dupree says he's performed reads like a who's-who of post-war rhythm and blues, ranging from "T-Bone" Walker to Pee Wee Crayton to Ike Turner. ("I was afraid I was going to hurt him," Dupree says of Ike, their relationship not being the best.) He was friends with "Big" Joe Turner, and Dupree recalls the names of every musician he has performed with since the 1930s--which instrument they played ("Ralph Cooper was on piano sometimes, T.B. Watson sometimes, depending on the ability"), where they traveled, how they got along.

But after all those years and all that traveling, Dupree had never released an album. All that changes this week, though, with the release of Swings the Blues on the local Dallas Blues Society Records label--the same label that recorded Henry Qualls after too many wasted years away from a recording studio.

Swings the Blues, though it was recorded months ago, sounds very much like a thing of the past--a product of an era that exists only on scratchy post-war 78s, the blues as rendered by a man for whom the big bands remain an influence long after their demise. With a back-up band that includes twentysomething purist Teddy Morgan and local hero Brian "Hash Brown" Calway on guitar, Dupree croons, blows, and pounds his way through a set list that runs the gamut from Les Hite's "T Bone Blues" through Louis Jordan's "How Bout That," Joe Turner's "Wee Baby Blues," and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's "Juice Head Baby." It's the sort of rich, wonderful album that defines the very best Texas music--as influenced by Western swing as it is by jump-blues and big-band, the wide-open sound of a city that doesn't exist any longer.

"It's not really a blues record," Dupree says of Swings the Blues. "It's a combination of blues and jazz. It could be, more or less, a fusion."

Swings the Blues, though, is not the first official recording Dupree has made, he reminds. No, that happened in 1949 when he and his Dallas-based band, the Dreamers, recorded for the famed R&B label Aladdin Records--a single called "Dream of Darling" that was recorded at the old Sellers Studio and one that Dupree never much cared for because it sounded terrible. As he tells it, the session went poorly because he had to fight a producer who thought black music was popular because it sounded so good sounding so bad--made by men who "play and just make a lot of noise," as he says. He figures in the long run it was just as well the song was never released, and Dupree doesn't even own a copy.

"The producer told us, 'You guys sound too perfect, so pull your instruments out of tune,'" Dupree recalls. "I said, 'No, man, I can't do that.' I could see what he was trying to do, to create some kind of stereotyped image, and that didn't sit too well with me. You know, we were supposed to be able to play the worst kind of sounds in the world.

"But we took time to see that our instruments were tuned properly. I didn't know how to play music like that. It's important that all the instruments be in tune. I told him, 'I don't know what you're trying to create, but I don't like it.' So I think that changed the whole attitude of the whole recording session."

Dupree never cared much for the rough blues of guys like Lightnin' Hopkins or Sonny Boy Williamson. To him, their music was too crude, too unrefined--the soundtracks of whorehouses and back-room bars located near the railroad tracks. Their music, he explains, was the sound of men who forever lived in the country even when they moved to the big city, a rural and undisciplined sound to which he would never relate.

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