Swingin' the blues

Big Al Dupree makes his recording debut after 72 years

Rather, Dupree came of age during the heyday of the swing era, when musicians like Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman were the top pop artists of the day; he gravitated toward the sweet swing sounds of Cab Calloway and Artie Shaw and Lionel Hampton, the brash big-band music that was polished and powerful all at once. As a young man growing up in the mid-1920s on Brock Street, between Central and Washington, Dupree became enamored of music through hearing records on a next-door neighbor's phonograph and seeing singing-cowboy movies. He was exposed to big-band through radio programs broadcast from New York, just as he heard the country-jazz of the Sons of the Pioneers and the Light Crust Doughboys made right here at home.

"You know, they weren't playing music that had any kind of degrading projection," Dupree says of his early childhood musical idols. "They were all wholesome things. You could listen to them with a degree of pride, and they were singing things that were wholesome."

He began taking piano lessons when he was five years old at the insistence of his mother, a music teacher at a nearby public school; she also made sure young Al had season tickets to the Dallas Symphony, which then performed at the old Fair Park Auditorium. Dupree recalls how his mother would always "go into town" and return each time with a piece of sheet music of some popular song that she would then give her young son to play--though Mrs. Dupree wouldn't actually give him lessons, turning him over to Mrs. Adinger.

"I don't know, my mother wouldn't teach me," Dupree says. "I guess she had some kind of sentiment about probably discouraging me if I had done something wrong."

Dupree had his first professional gig when he was just 13 at a joint called Cafe Drugs on the corner of Thomas and Hall--an oddly named place, so called because the owner, T.H. Smith, ran a drugstore, a liquor store, and a restaurant all on the same piece of property.

"It was a pretty nice place, being the '30s--especially for black people," Dupree recalls. "Nothing elaborate, but liveable. We had a beautiful choreographer. This lady would import talent from New York, Chicago, she'd go out in the country and get the best talent she could find because we had a chorus line."

To hear Dupree tell it, the Cafe Drugs was Dallas' little Cotton Club: His big band, a nine-piece combo called the Dallas Dandies in which he played alto saxophone, would play their big-band arrangements--with some instruments doubling on the same notes to approximate a bigger sound--as women would high-step and shimmy in front of them. The crowd, often decked out in swing-era elegance, would dine and drink and dance, jumpin' to the jump-blues of the Dallas Dandies.

Dupree played the Cafe Drugs for three years, then headed for Xavier College in New Orleans, where he majored in music and performed in the junior symphony orchestra. He returned to Dallas and went back to work at the Cafe Drugs, but in 1943 was drafted into the army. He served from 1943 to '46 as an aircraft mechanic with the 99th Squadron out of Tuskegee; he never saw any action outside of a skirmish with a second lieutenant ("a real glamour boy," Dupree sneers) who tried to make time with his lady friend.

"I didn't fight," Dupree says, laughing. "Man, I was a lover." He was also a musician, playing in a 17-piece special services band ("The brass section was Paul Tucker, Steve Augustine, McDowell on trumpet...") that would play dances and other special military occasions.

When he got out of the army, Dupree joined a band out of Indianapolis that toured the South; during the post-war era, bands might have been based out of one city, but they traveled extensively--a dozen or more men cramped into a bus or car, hopping from dance hall to school auditorium each night. When he finally hooked up with Buster Smith in the late '40s, Dupree had had enough of touring the circuit and hopped off it as quick as he could.

By 1950, he was back in Dallas as a solo act, playing clubs like the Vagabond and the Clear and Simple, both of which were on Greenville Avenue; he also got himself a day job, working at the post office. He started taking gigs at country clubs, then hooked up with the Southern Kitchen in 1967 and performed for diners until 1983; after that, he went to work in hotel lounges, the last refuge for the musician over 60 who still wants to work. Now he plays three days a week at the Balcony Club, which helps to pay the bills but isn't completely satisfying, having to put up with drunks requesting Frank Sinatra or Muddy Waters or Fats Domino songs. "I never liked anything Fats Domino did," Dupree says, grimacing.

"Since I decided to stay in Dallas, I just pursued myself and got a regular job and played whatever music I could whenever I could play," Dupree says. "I didn't see too much future in playing music. It just didn't come my way. I guess my time just wasn't at hand. Whatever happens with this record, it's a wait-and-see situation."

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