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.'"

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."

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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