The quiet man

Cornell Dupree is the ultimate un-showoff

For a studio man, it's surprising that Dupree's three favorite albums, as far as his own playing, were live: Aretha Franklin Live at the Fillmore West, King Curtis Live at the Fillmore West, and Donny Hathaway Live at the Bitter End.

Unlike most studio aces, Dupree cannot breeze through orchestrations like reading a newspaper. But he never felt intimidated, even with the clock ticking on high-dollar dates. "I can play a few notes, if they're not too close together," he says. "I do read chord charts, but I'm not a fast reader; I can usually figure it out in a couple of minutes. I could make out enough to understand what it was saying, and I listened, paid attention. Then, if they played it down a couple times, I'd get it."

Dupree was always surrounded by fellow Atlantic sidemen-Aretha band royalty like Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Bernard Purdie, and Chuck Rainey. Rainey says the group would lock in the groove before the producer and arranger arrived at sessions.

Dupree's most famous spotlight outing was in the 1970s funk-R&B outfit Stuff. The concept involved merging New York's premier sidemen--Tee, Gale, Steve Gadd, Gordon Edwards, Chris Parker, and Dupree--sans vocalist or front man, but they still had to acquire management and be "introduced" to Warner Brothers as a group. Stuff released six albums, and "Foots"--off their first--was the closest thing to a hit single. Although Stuff guested on Saturday Night Live several times during the show's first season and backed up Joe Cocker's SNL appearances, the band--contrary to popular belief--was not the show's original band.

"One reason Stuff didn't get as big as they could have was we never really committed to the group," Dupree says, admitting that the players remained lifelong sidemen to the core. "We were all doing sessions by day--we'd cancel Stuff gigs to do Joe Cocker or Paul Simon concerts."

Dupree has had a Yamaha endorsement for 20 years, and the "Dupree Jam" is his signature line guitar. "When I first went to Japan, I had my Telecaster; I had put a DeArmond pickup in the center. The Japanese people [Yamaha] saw it and constructed a few similar guitars, which I liked. They said, 'OK, you play it, we take a picture.'" No longer made, Cornell estimates the Dupree Jam sold 200 or 300 copies. Yamaha, however, builds better acoustics than electrics, and though still active, Cornell's endorsement is due for renewal.

"I have a problem with acoustic," Dupree says; he doesn't even own one. "I hum. And I hum louder than the acoustic. In fact, when they go direct from the electric guitar to the board, they pick up my voice. I have a bone--it's real freakish," he says, his Dupree Jam resting at his hip. "And somehow my voice comes through the guitar. So me and acoustic just don't get along."

Dupree has always kept a place near Fort Worth, even when he lived in New York City. Then he moved to Los Angeles. "I couldn't get into anything worth mentioning," he says. "In fact, when I was in L.A., I kept coming back to New York doing more work, especially when The Cosby Show came out, which I played for."

His seventh solo album, on current label Kokopelli, will be called Uncle Funky, a nickname from saxophonist Hank Crawford. (The first under his own name was 1973's Teasin', on Atlantic.) "They don't play my own records on Dallas radio," Dupree says with a shrug. "The clubs can't afford you, and I'm not that popular here--they only pay 50 bucks. People don't read the back of albums, they don't know who I am. I've been gone so long, the people have forgotten me."

Like fellow studio icons Chuck Rainey and Fathead Newman, who have homes in the area, Dupree must take jets to his gigs. He often headlines New York's Bottom Line, Lone Star Roadhouse, and 2,500-seat venues in Japan, but he feels anonymous in Texas.

"I'm contemplating getting another place back in New York. It's too expensive to send for me, put me up in a hotel, and then pay me. I'd be much busier living in New York. My last big venture is the upcoming Tom Jones CD. All rhythm and blues, and he's kickin'. He's a hard-workin' man; I really admire him much more than before."

Yes, he would like to have a steady gig in Dallas-Fort Worth, but excitement builds in his voice only over the prospect of being a sideman. Would he like to go on the road with Tom Jones?

"I'd love to," says Cornell Dupree.

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