The quiet man

Cornell Dupree is the ultimate un-showoff

He is the king of non-flash guitar, the guitar man on an estimated 2,500 pop and R&B records of the sort where you don't necessarily recall the guitar parts. Cornell Dupree himself can't recall most of his discography, save for some obvious credits: Brook Benton's "Rainy Night In Georgia," Aretha's "Respect," and King Curtis' "Soul Serenade."

Dupree has been the first-string choice of record producers for 35 years, making him one of the most prolific R&B guitarists on the map. Flashy axe murderers are like hot-lookin' blondes in Hollywood--a dime a dozen. But subtle players who add snap, crackle, and pop, who complement a great singer's voice without eating the furniture--those are the rarest breed. A handful of these elite mystery guitarists--Mickey Baker, Vinnie Bell, Eric Gale, Hugh McCracken, and Larry Carlton--dominated the music industry for decades, at least until the onslaught of rap.

Dupree seems casual and far removed from his history: Each record was just a matter of doing his day job, punching a clock. His house in North Richland Hills, north of Fort Worth, could be that of any ordinary manufacturer or civil service official. There's nothing to indicate that this is home sweet home for the man whose guitar graces a Yellow Pages of popular song by Aretha Franklin; King Curtis; Sam Cooke; Otis Redding; Ringo; Miles; Joe Cocker; Carly and Paul Simon; B.B., Freddie, and Ben E. King; and Big Mamas Thornton, Streisand, and Midler.

"Not many people read the backs of albums, they don't know who the hell it is," Dupree says with a shrug. At 54, he and his wife of 35 years are helping to raise their 15-year-old granddaughter, whose beauty queen photos are tacked up throughout the kitchen. The den contains four gold records from the R&B band Stuff (a fifth was stolen), Grammy nominations, pictures of the King Curtis All Stars in Montreux, and a New Yorker "Goings On About Town" write-up.

Somehow, you sense that Dupree's move back to the Fort Worth suburbs, after decades in the fast lane, is not entirely one he wished for. The industry in which studio lions like Dupree once prevailed is now beholden to rap and MTV, and those mediums have surgically removed those pesky black jazz geniuses from pop culture. Though youthful, with thin frame and trademark goatee--and looking every bit as cool as his name--Cornell Dupree is old, by bottom-line corporate rock standards.

Dupree's last solo album, Bop 'N' Blues, in 1995, was his first foray into bebop standards--although he streamlines them into an R&B format. "I always try to make it plain and simple, so that everyone can understand it--mainly myself," says Dupree, who never felt comfortable playing jazz. Only on the first cut, "Freedom Jazz Dance," does the guitarist burn out some dangerous, unconventional licks; the rest of the album patronizes the conservative pop-jazz radio format, like his Kokopelli labelmates Fathead Newman and Herbie Mann.

Born in 1942, Dupree attended I.M. Terrell, Fort Worth's only black high school in the 1950s (King Curtis and Ornette Coleman were previous alumni). He cites two local guitarists, Huary P. Wilson and Edward Franklin, as early influences. "But the first person who made me want to play guitar was Johnny 'Guitar' Watson when I was 14. A buddy of mine used to open the sodas at one of the concert halls; I went down to help and caught Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. Oh, man, I had to have me a guitar. My mother got me one that Christmas."

As a teenager, Cornell played the honky-tonks along Fort Worth's Jacksboro Highway. The Jax was a volatile 16-mile neon stretch where Carswell Air Force Base personnel, hay hands, gangsters, and backroom gamblers brawled, drank, and whored. Though many country musicians feared for their safety in these chicken-mesh beer halls, Dupree, who played in a black R&B band, came out unscathed.

"They was rough joints, but they always treated us well," he remembers. "We had no problem. We worked the weekend from midnight to 5 a.m., [at] an after-hours club called the White Sands, seven nights a week. In fact, that top picture over there," says Cornell, pointing to a gothic blues photo of his young, cherubic self holding a Les Paul Jr., "was taken at the White Sands, with Leon Childs and the Hightones in 1959. Rednecks and truck drivers come in, they did their thing--I didn't mess with them, they didn't mess with the group. Truckers used to chew bennies like candy. Our band only drank, but I dropped a coupla bennies, it'd wake you up, man. All those truckers would hang there till the last note was played at 5 a.m."

Like fellow studio ace, bassist Chuck Rainey--currently his neighbor in nearby Bedford--Cornell's mentor was sax great King Curtis, whom he met in 1961. Cornell was working with a local R&B band called the Red Hearts at Small's Paradise, whose owners were tight with Curtis.

"I don't think this club had anything to do with Small's Paradise in Harlem," he explains. "Just coincidence. Someone in Curtis' family had passed, and he came down to Fort Worth for the funeral, and he come by the club and sat in with the band. Before he left he said, 'Hey, man, you keep on practicing, and I'll send for you one of these days.' I was 18. A year to the day later, he called me. I played 'Soul Twist,' one of his hits, and 'Moonlight in Vermont' over the telephone. He said, 'OK, I'm gonna send you a ticket.'"

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