The quiet man

Cornell Dupree is the ultimate un-showoff

At the age of 19 in 1962, Dupree left Fort Worth for the first time and moved straight into the apartment of the legendary Curtis, at 100th Street and Central Park West. "I got there on a Monday afternoon, and we opened at Small's Paradise in Harlem on Tuesday. I was scared to death, didn't know anyone, only Curtis. He showed me the ropes."

From Small's Paradise in Fort Worth to Small's Paradise in Harlem, young Dupree withstood the culture shock and exceeded expectations. He advanced his chops, hanging with Atlantic Records studio pros Eric Gale, Carl Lynch, and especially Billy Butler. Butler, who did the original "Honky Tonk" with Bill Dogget, had been Curtis' previous guitarist. After a few months in Curtis' pad, Dupree sent for his wife and moved into a little hotel for $33 a week.

The King Curtis All-Stars opened and backed-up the American opening acts during the 10-city Beatles '65 tour: "Very exciting, traveling in a private plane, whole floors in hotels, girls passing out and falling from balconies like they were hypnotized. One thing I can say about our band: We weren't hounds, we weren't like other rock and roll bands, chasing after every little skirt. I was married."

Curtis' influence was profound. "He taught me how to pay attention, how to listen, never overdo it," Dupree recounts. "Less is more. Speak when you have something to say, otherwise stay in the background and don't interfere. Coming through his band, I look at it as my degree."

Jimi Hendrix also came up through the college of King Curtis; the year he was with the band, Cornell covered rhythm. "There were jazz standards he just didn't mess with. Hendrix was definitely a stylist, a heavy blues player then. We'd bounce off each other, we'd do a little pickin', of course, supporting Curtis, playing along with the rest of the band, not sticking out.

"But he would always steal the show, just seemed to get all the attention. It didn't bother me, it was fun watching," says Dupree, who was born humble--an essential virtue of the star sideman. His closest studio colleague became Atlantic session guitarist Eric Gale. "We never had to talk about what we were gonna play. It was just one, two three, bam. We'd never clash. It would always match."

For years, the standard lineup at Atlantic Records called for three guitarists per session. Mega-producer Jerry Wexler, now 79, remembers the 1960s: "Eric Gale, Hugh McCracken, and Carl Lynch--those were the days I used to use three guitarists, because I wanted a lot of fullness. But it always created a problem about what parts each should be playing. 'OK, you play four on the bar, you double the bass, and you play obbligato.' And they'd get in each other's fuckin' way. It used to be the worst part of my recording career. Then Cornell Dupree and Steve Cropper came along--the two magicians who established the ability to play rhythm and lead at the same time. Cornell Dupree, man, covered all of the shit, so we could dispense with three guitarists."

Gale and Carl Lynch may have lost work because of Dupree's flexibility, but Cornell still teamed with McCracken on countless sessions. "Again," Dupree says, "we also could pretty much just play without discussing what we were gonna do, and never get in each other's way."

Says Wexler: "Whatever Cornell didn't cover, Hugh McCracken put down. The two guys would ham and egg it."

"Cornell was definitely the Professor," adds McCracken, who was 16 when he played guitar on King Curtis' 1959 record, "Trouble In Mind"--before Dupree or Billy Butler played with Curtis. "I used to call him Professor because of his demeanor--all-knowing without boasting, an amazing coolness. He wasn't just creating guitar parts, he would hear the whole thing."

Dupree began his decade as Aretha Franklin's full-time guitarist in 1968 (songs like "Rock Steady" and "Day Dreamin'"). His anecdotal memories are dim, but he recalls Muhammad Ali going out on the road with them, warming up the audience. According to Jerry Wexler, Aretha turned down "Let It Be" and "Son of a Preacher Man," both offered to her first (she recorded them years later, when it hardly mattered).

"Maybe she just didn't hear the right tingle at that time," speculates Dupree. "She would hear certain songs that no one else would hear the way she could."

When off the road with Aretha, Dupree was top session ace at Atlantic's 59th Street flagship studio in New York, as well as Jerry Wexler's two studios down South--Criteria in Miami and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. "I was like a trouble shooter," Dupree says. "They'd fly me into Muscle Shoals for a week. I'd do some overdubs, some rhythm, whatever it called for to make the record good. I can't describe my style. I always listened to the vocal, supporting without interfering, always enhancing in a sense. I listened and replied. Blended."

Always in the public ear, not the public eye, Cornell can't recollect the countless dates he did, but lists "Rainy Night In Georgia" as a personal favorite. "The whole arrangement was built around the licks I played, thirds, which I think made the song."

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