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Monday, March 27, 2017

Champion Jack Dupree: Vol. 1 - 1940-1941

CHAMPION JACK DUPREE: VOL. 1: 1940-1941 (2009)

1) Gamblin' Man Blues; 2) Warehouse Man Blues; 3) Chain Gang Blues; 4) New Low Down Dog; 5) Black Woman Swing; 6) Cabbage Greens No. 1; 7) Cabbage Greens No. 2; 8) Angola Blues; 9) My Cabin Inn; 10) Bad Health Blues; 11) That's All Right; 12) Gibing Blues; 13) Dupree Shake Dance; 14) My Baby's Gone; 15) Weed Head Woman; 16) Junker Blues; 17) Oh, Red; 18) All Alone Blues; 19) Big Time Mama; 20) Shady Lane; 21) Hurry Down Sunshine; 22) Jackie P Blues; 23) Heavy Heart Blues; 24) Morning Tea; 25) Black Cow Blues.

William Thomas Dupree was quite an interesting character back in his days — for one thing, it's not that often that a musician temporarily abandons his career to become a boxer, which he did in the late 1920s and from which he gained his "Champion Jack" nickname. Eventually, he got beat up, and since that happened at about the same time that he crossed paths with fellow blues pianist Leroy Carr, he seemingly decided that punching them keys was, after all, a safer job than pun­ching faces — nevertheless, he was smart enough to keep the "Champion" moniker for PR rea­sons, even if there was hardly anything champion-like about his playing the blues.

Well, one thing that does look champion-like is the sheer quantity of recordings that the man had done: spanning the pre-war era of shellac 78"s and onwards all the way until his death in 1992, he kept pumping out product at a breathless pace, despite never having shown any compositional genius or truly outstanding musicianship. Hunting down all of his mammoth discography is a nearly hopeless and, most importantly, thoroughly ungrateful task. That said, there is nothing particularly unpleasant about his style either: in small doses, Champion Jack Dupree is always palatable, and his historical importance cannot be denied.

Most of the man's pre-LP-era output is now conveniently available in the form of a 4-volume CD package, released in 2009 on the JSP label and annotated by blues expert Neil Slaven; since these 4 volumes cover more than a decade of music-making, I will comment on each separately, even if you can probably guess that the Champion's style did not evolve too seriously over those years. That style is simple — blues and boogie piano playing, with minimal accompaniment: on the first 17 tracks here, the only additional player is bassist Wilson Swain, with guitarist Jesse Ellery joining the duo for the last eight. Dupree is a fun player, a decent entertainer, but with fairly simple technique (well, I guess you can't easily combine piano practice with a boxing career) and a nice, but unexceptional, singing voice, so there's not much difference between all these tracks, except for the base patterns — here he plays slow 12-bar, there he plays fast barrelhouse boogie, and here he... oh no, not another slow 12-bar?...

Anyway, there are a few tracks here that still deserve special mention. ʽCabbage Greensʼ, recor­ded here in two slightly different versions, is a variation on the old ʽCow Cow Bluesʼ boogie that most people probably know as Ray Charles' ʽMess Aroundʼ — and this gives us a good pretext to compare Dupree's playing with Ray himself, not to mention its more than obvious influence on a certain white guy named Jerry Lee Lewis: make the necessary chronological adjustments and you will see that this is as wild as it gets for 1940, just as Jerry Lee was as wild as it could get for 1956. In terms of fun and recklessness, he clearly beats Leroy Carr (who wasn't much about rompin' and stompin') and is closer in style to Pete Johnson, the notorious sidekick of Big Joe Turner, although I'd say that Dupree's playing is rowdier and more «populist», whatever that could mean under the circumstances.

More importantly, there's ʽJunker Bluesʼ here, written by Dupree's piano mentor Willie Hall (better known under the professional moniker of Drive 'Em Down) and, as far as I understand, originally recorded by Dupree himself. This one is particularly important for launching the career of Fats Domino nine years later — when he borrowed the melody wholesale and changed the controversial lyrics from "They call me, they call me the junker / Cause I'm loaded all the time" to the far safer "They call me, they call me the fat man / Cause I weigh two hundred pounds". If you had any doubts, the song goes on to be loaded with references to reefer, cocaine, needles, and feeling high, so god bless good old OKeh records for having the guts to release it in 1940, when, apparently, middle-class white audiences were not the target audience for this kind of stuff.

For that matter, the very titles of the songs alone show that Champion Jack was not the kind of guy to shy away from socially relevant topics and spend all his time on woman issues: there's ʽChain Gang Bluesʼ, there's ʽAngola Bluesʼ (referring to Louisiana State Penitentiary, not the African country), and there's ʽWeed Head Womanʼ (hmm, is this one more of a woman issue or a weed issue?). As time goes by (and the Champ's slowly rising popularity makes him more of a household name), these rough subjects do get more and more eclipsed by standard, polite-mouthed blues thematics, though, and ʽJunker Bluesʼ becomes ʽHeavy Heart Bluesʼ, with a slight accompanying drop in tempo and energy. Still, on the other hand, he gives Leroy Carr's ʽHurry Down Sunshineʼ a faster and rockier spin (as well as a completely different set of lyrics), meaning that, even if he was willing to tone down the scathingness of the words, the same did not apply to the boogie power of the music.

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