Swingin' the blues

Big Al Dupree sits alone at a table at Back Country Bar-B-Q, happily finishing off a heaping plate of meat and vegetables. This Greenville Avenue restaurant is, by Big Al's estimation, the best barbecue eatery in town--"and I've tried them all," brags the man who's earned the "Big" in front of his name.

Though he's in his early 70s--Dupree was born in 1923 in what used to be called North Dallas, around State and Hall streets--Dupree looks a good 15 years younger than that. And he feels like a young man: The night before this interview, he was crawling around on the floor of his son's beauty salon in Oak Cliff, cleaning up the rubble and debris left after a woman accidentally drove her car through the storefront.

Dupree likes to say his music keeps him young because, after all, he plays the music of his youth--a jump-blues sound rooted in the big-band era, containing audible echoes of Louis Jordan, the Nat "King" Cole Trio, Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He has been playing this music for more than six decades, his resume boasting clubs ranging from the long-defunct Cafe Drugs in the State-Hall area through his weekly stint at the Balcony Club in Lakewood.

The list of artists with whom Dupree says he's performed reads like a who's-who of post-war rhythm and blues, ranging from "T-Bone" Walker to Pee Wee Crayton to Ike Turner. ("I was afraid I was going to hurt him," Dupree says of Ike, their relationship not being the best.) He was friends with "Big" Joe Turner, and Dupree recalls the names of every musician he has performed with since the 1930s--which instrument they played ("Ralph Cooper was on piano sometimes, T.B. Watson sometimes, depending on the ability"), where they traveled, how they got along.

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But after all those years and all that traveling, Dupree had never released an album. All that changes this week, though, with the release of Swings the Blues on the local Dallas Blues Society Records label--the same label that recorded Henry Qualls after too many wasted years away from a recording studio.

Swings the Blues, though it was recorded months ago, sounds very much like a thing of the past--a product of an era that exists only on scratchy post-war 78s, the blues as rendered by a man for whom the big bands remain an influence long after their demise. With a back-up band that includes twentysomething purist Teddy Morgan and local hero Brian "Hash Brown" Calway on guitar, Dupree croons, blows, and pounds his way through a set list that runs the gamut from Les Hite's "T Bone Blues" through Louis Jordan's "How Bout That," Joe Turner's "Wee Baby Blues," and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's "Juice Head Baby." It's the sort of rich, wonderful album that defines the very best Texas music--as influenced by Western swing as it is by jump-blues and big-band, the wide-open sound of a city that doesn't exist any longer.

"It's not really a blues record," Dupree says of Swings the Blues. "It's a combination of blues and jazz. It could be, more or less, a fusion."

Swings the Blues, though, is not the first official recording Dupree has made, he reminds. No, that happened in 1949 when he and his Dallas-based band, the Dreamers, recorded for the famed R&B label Aladdin Records--a single called "Dream of Darling" that was recorded at the old Sellers Studio and one that Dupree never much cared for because it sounded terrible. As he tells it, the session went poorly because he had to fight a producer who thought black music was popular because it sounded so good sounding so bad--made by men who "play and just make a lot of noise," as he says. He figures in the long run it was just as well the song was never released, and Dupree doesn't even own a copy.

"The producer told us, 'You guys sound too perfect, so pull your instruments out of tune,'" Dupree recalls. "I said, 'No, man, I can't do that.' I could see what he was trying to do, to create some kind of stereotyped image, and that didn't sit too well with me. You know, we were supposed to be able to play the worst kind of sounds in the world.

"But we took time to see that our instruments were tuned properly. I didn't know how to play music like that. It's important that all the instruments be in tune. I told him, 'I don't know what you're trying to create, but I don't like it.' So I think that changed the whole attitude of the whole recording session."

Dupree never cared much for the rough blues of guys like Lightnin' Hopkins or Sonny Boy Williamson. To him, their music was too crude, too unrefined--the soundtracks of whorehouses and back-room bars located near the railroad tracks. Their music, he explains, was the sound of men who forever lived in the country even when they moved to the big city, a rural and undisciplined sound to which he would never relate.  

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."

Big Al Dupree performs September 10 at Borders Books & Music in Preston Royal.

Country roads lead to Warner Bros.
Though he may have moved to San Antonio, Jack Ingram still counts as a local boy: The young country-folkie started his career here playing clubs like Adair's and Club Dada, former Brave Combo drummer Mitch Marine and Sixty-Six frontman Bill Longhorse have spent time in his band, and he used to share a label with Jackopierce (Rhythmic Records). That is, he used to: Last week, Ingram signed to the mighty Warner Bros. Records, making him the latest in a long line of local (or once-local) artists to make the leap to a major label.

Kathy Whitley, Ingram's manager at the Nashville-based Vector Management (which also handles such clients as Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, and Nanci Griffith), said last Wednesday she and Ingram found out about the deal only days ago.

"It's a pretty firm deal," she says. "We don't have any papers signed yet, but we do have a release date."

On November 17, Warner Bros. will release Ingram's third album, Live at Adair's, which was recorded earlier this year at the burgers-and-beer country hangout in Deep Ellum.

Scene, heard
Bedhead will makes its final appearance around these parts for a while, headlining a show September 8 at the Galaxy Club with My Dad is Dead and MK Ultra. Bedhead, which is readying the followup to WhatFunLifeWas for a late spring-early summer 1996 release, has a new single ("The Dark Ages," as haunting a sound as these boys can achieve without actually dying) on the Trance Syndicate compilation Cinco Aos, which also features contributions from Roky Erickson, the Butthole Surfers, Sixteen Deluxe, Ed Hall, and others. "The Dark Ages" will also be available on 10-inch vinyl sometime in January with two new songs not available on any other album...

Ugly Mustard, the industrial-metal-prog-rock band that includes bassist and all-around MVP Mike Daane, has inked a deal with new manager Bill Ham. (Ham, of course, is the man best known for making stars out of ZZ Top and Clint Black.) Thanks, in part, to airplay on KEGL-FM (97.1) (about 15-20 spins a week, according to management), the band has also begun attracting interest from various major labels...

Speaking of The Eagle, the high-rating rock station has begun a local-music radio show called, appropriately enough, "The Local Show," hosted by jock Chris Ryan. The hour-long program airs Sunday nights at 9, opposite KDGE-FM's "The Adventure Club," the terrific long-running new-music show that already features plenty of local music and Morrissey.

Street Beat welcomes E-mail tips and comments at DalObserv@aol.com.

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