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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Champion Jack Dupree month: The OKeh Sides - Better than welfare grapefruit juice

Jack wound up his career as a boxer in Indianapolis, where he took a job as a bouncer at Sea Ferguson's Cotton Club. It was here he met Leroy Carr, who influenced Jack's New Orleans barrelhouse piano with his more uptown, nascent Chicago Blues style. It was a combination of these two styles that made up his playing for most of the rest of his career. He travelled to Chicago, where, according to the song "See My Milk Cow", he met Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, and Jazz Gillum, who helped him get his first recording contract, with OKeh.  He made his first recording in 1940 and is often credited with being the first New Orleans blues pianist to be recorded.

Jack talks about his early career as a musician at the start of "See My Milk Cow", ca. 1968
Top row:  Jazz Gillum, Tampa Red, Scrapper Blackwell
Bottom row:  Jack Dupree, Big Bill Broonzy
in front - Tampa Red's whiskey drinking dog.
Hear Jack talk about this very photo in "Reminiscin' with Champion Jack" from the Champion of the Blues LP!

His first release was "Warehouse Man Blues," a song that combines a number of elements that would be cycled and recycled throughout his work. It's pretty funny, but it's also a striking bit of social commentary about being black and poor in a white man's world. CJD would address these issues more fully in the 60s - it was pretty much why he abandoned the United States for England and mainland Europe.

"My grandma left this morning with a basket in her hand
she going to the warehouse to see the warehouse man
she got down to the warehouse, and white folks said 'ain't no use,
the governor ain't giving away nothin' but that canned grapefruit juice.'
It's a low down dirty shame the way these projects doin.

Now Uncle Sam paid the men that bonus
You know that was mighty fine
You fill them street walkin' women up with that moonlight wine
You spent all your money, you spent it mighty fast 
Now this winter breeze bout to jam you with a . . . yeah! yeah!
Don't you know the relief is closing down?
It's a low down shame the way they really do."

(Paid for) sex, booze, poverty, righteous anger at injustice, double entendre, a woman who has mother in her name that is not quite the singer's mother - it's just about all there, except for the heroin and the cabbage.  And the shaking.

Jack cut enough tracks to release four records on his first date in 1940, including the utterly stompin' "Cabbage Greens" and "New Low Down Dog", an early version of "Stumbling Block", one of his best known and loved rockers.

He was back six months later for another one, when he unleashed the "Dupree Shake Dance" and a song that would have a huge influence on the sound of New Orleans rhythm and blues (and by extension rock and roll in general), "Junker Blues".

You hear a lot about the key piano professors of New Orleans, and too often Jack Dupree does not get mentioned on the list.  But his rolling figures and general acceptance of all facets of human behavior are at the heart of New Orleans music. Fats Domino would take this song, remove all of the references to drugs and squalor (not easy, since that's just about all there is to the lyrics), and create "The Fat Man" in 1949, a song that's often one of those many "first rock and roll" songs you hear so much about.  So, by logical extension, in this month's version of the story, rock and roll was created on a bed of needles, reefer, and cocaine. Something to keep in mind. "Junker's Blues" plays an important part in another key development in the history of rock and roll, but we'll get to that in a couple of weeks.


"Dupree Shake Dance" is another key piece of early rock and roll spirit, mainly because it's such a racket. One thing about Champion Jack Dupree - he does not play with the ease of other New Orleans pianists like Professor Longhair on one side or Jelly Roll Morton on the other. And it's his enthusiastic approximation of a sophisticated boogie that provides a great transition from jazz to rhythm and blues.  He beats the crap out of the keys, playing like he still has his boxing gloves on, going a few rounds with the piano and creating an imprecise splatter of left handed clams that adds a righteous element of chaos to his faster boogies. This leaves him sometimes on the nose wrinkling end of blues critic-type assessment of his work, but for the purposes of rock and roll it is completely on point - you can't guess exactly where his fingers are going to fall, and the whole mess ends up sounding like an Esquerita solo or something.

Jack recorded one more session for OKeh, in November of 1941.  This session included another New Orleans styled r&b number, "Heavy Heart Blues", and some very cool early Chicago style blues which include the first appearance of electric guitar on his records.

His fledgling musical career was interrupted, however, by his first trip overseas, to serve time in World War II.  He wouldn't pick up his musical career again until 1944.

Listen to "Warehouse Man Blues"