Cornell Dupree, a soul/R&B/jazz guitarist and quintessential sideman who claimed to have played on over 2,500 recordings, died at his home in Ft. Worth, Texas, on May 8, 2011. Dupree had been suffering from severe emphysema for some time and had been awaiting a lung transplant. He was 68 years old.
Dupree was born on December 19, 1942 and raised in Ft. Worth, Texas. Inspired by a legion of great Texas and Southwestern blues players such as T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulson and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, he took up the guitar as a youngster. He was just 20 years old and known as C.L. Dupree when he started working with fellow Ft. Worth native King Curtis and his R&B band. Shortly thereafter, Curtis brought him to New York as a member of the Kingpins with whom Dupree became a regular within the Atlantic Records stable of studio musicians. While recording with producers like Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, Dupree put his stamp on songs by Curtis, Brooks Benton (“Rainy Night in Georgia”), Aretha Franklin and many other soul legends.
Writing about Dupree in the liner notes to Bop ‘N’ Blues, Wexler attributed much of the vaunted cohesion of the rhythm section on the Atlantic sessions to the gifts of the multi-faceted guitarist. “Before Cornell joined our Atlantic Studio band, it was our practice to use three (or even more!) guitarists on a record session,” Wexler remembered. “We were looking to create some kind of interweave with the rest of the rhythms-the bass, drums, keyboard. Time and again we would get into a hellacious mess as the three guitarists invariably got in each other’s way. Precious time would get wasted with all hands trying to come up with congruent, non-cluttering parts. I shudder in memory of some of those misbegotten sessions. And so when Mr. Dupree, the pride of Ft. Worth, came to our rescue, it was bye-bye to multiple guitars because- miraculously, it seemed to me-one man, playing rhythm and lead at the same time, took the place of three. Result: clean and mean rhythm patterns.”
One great example of that clean and mean approach is perhaps Dupree’s most famous lick-the intro to Franklin’s “Respect,” a succession of string-bending 3-note phrases that kicked off the iconic song and comprised a riff oft-copied by guitarists all over the world. He was a member of Franklin’s touring group from 1967 until about 1976. It was during that time that Dupree became known as “Uncle Funky,” a name that well captured his soulful phrasing and easy-going manner. The guitarist was in the original house band for Saturday Night Live in the 70s.
During that same period, as a member of the band Stuff (with Eric Gale on guitar, Gordon Edwards on bass, Richard Tee on keyboards and Steve Gadd on drums), Dupree became a more public figure, as that group toured under its own name as well as played behind a veritable who’s who of pop music of the ’70s, from Grover Washington, Jr. to Joe Cocker and Paul Simon. Stuff combined a jazz sophistication with a soulful groove and, thanks to the very distinctive voices of its individual members, had an instantly recognizable sound.
Here is a clip from a performance by Stuff in 1976, showcasing Dupree’s expressive and soulful guitar in tandem with Gale’s:
Over the years, Dupree recorded about ten albums as a leader, including two each for the Texas-based Amazing Records and Herbie Mann’s Kokopelli Records, and his 1988 album Coast to Coast was nominated for a Grammy, but it was his work as a sideman that brought him the most notoriety.
In the liner notes to Dupree’s Bop ‘N’ Blues, Mann said about Dupree: “I don’t think there is any player who does what they do the way Cornell does it. In a world of generic sound-alikes, his playing is refreshingly original and richly steeped in his roots of Southern Texas blues.”
In recent years, Dupree performed with the Gadd Gang, led by fellow Stuff alumnus Steve Gadd, as well as with the Soul Survivors, a group with a floating cast of contributors, many of whom were seminal R&B players from the 60s and 70s. Although Dupree traveled all over the world, he never lost his ties to his hometown of Ft. Worth where he spent the last years of his life. Despite a debilitating illness, Dupree continued to perform and record, even if it meant taking an oxygen tank or needing assistance to get to the stage. He recorded his 10th and final album as a leader in April.
Vernon Reid was one of many modern guitarists influenced by Dupree. “Cornell Dupree was a giant,” said Reid. “He was a real giant. His name invokes R&B, and invokes it in a particular way, because he was a link to when blues was at the table in R&B and jazz was a blood relative. He brought all of that together. In his own way he was very much a fusion artist, and I’m not [just] talking about his [work] with Steve Gadd in Stuff. … And the things he did with Bill Withers, the things he did with King Curtis-he made a monumental contribution.”
Dupree is survived by his wife of of 53 years, Erma Kindles Dupree of Fort Worth; three children, James C. Dupree and Celestine Allan, both of Dallas, and Cornell L. Dupree III of Fort Worth; and nine grandchildren.