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Cool Cornell 

His name and face might not grace many album covers, but Cornell Dupree's guitar playing has touched millions of people. The funky two-note string pop at the beginning of Aretha Franklin's "Respect," the serene lead and refrain on King Curtis' "Soul Serenade," even the rhythmic underpinnings on Mariah Carey's Emotions album -- they're all the work of Dupree.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. In a remarkable career now entering its fifth decade, Dupree has played on an estimated 2,000-plus albums, and worked with a staggering list of artists that includes James Brown, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Donny Hathaway, Elvin Jones, B.B. King, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Paul Simon and Barbra Streisand.

"I've been around a while," says an understated Dupree by phone from his Texas home. "I've been able to meet so many great people, and they like what I do, my style of playing, and that's made the acquaintances good."

Like New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer and Motown Records' bassist James Jamerson, Dupree is a largely unsung, but vital component in the American music songbook. He spent the early years of his career playing with R&B saxophone kingpin King Curtis -- "That's where I got my playing degree," says Dupree -- and became the guitarist of choice for Atlantic Records in the late '60s, after legendary producer Jerry Wexler brought in Dupree to help shape the label's soul tracks.

"It was our practice to use three (or even more!) guitarists on a record session," wrote Wexler in the liner notes to Dupree's superb 1995 solo CD, Bop 'n' Blues. "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. ... And so when Mr. Dupree, the pride of Fort 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."

Dupree's work for Atlantic earned him a 10-year tenure with Aretha Franklin, one of the label's superstars. "I just know that during all that while with Aretha, I immensely enjoyed it," says Dupree. "It was all about the feeling, and the way she expressed herself vocally was another inspiration for me."

Dupree crafted his signature style by building on a base of the deep Texas blues he heard growing up. Dupree loved the sounds of T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins, but the syncopated twang in his sound came from an eclectic assortment of artists from the Lone Star state and beyond. "I was inspired by Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and Wayne Bennett, who I was fortunate enough to hear with Bobby 'Blue' Bland," remembers Dupree. "There were country and western artists I enjoyed, too, like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb."

Dupree's diverse musical interests are reflected in his own choices for the five pieces that contain his best work: "I'm most proud of 'Rainy Night in Georgia' with Brook Benton, Aretha Franklin's Live at Fillmore West, King Curtis' Live at Fillmore West, Donny Hathaway's Live, and Lil' Esther Phillips on From a Whisper to a Scream."

Dupree runs down those titles without a trace of braggadocio, and his humility has probably been an intangible ingredient in his success as a sideman and session pro. It's probably another reason why, despite making two studio albums of his own in the '70s, Dupree never gave much thought to being a frontman until the mid-80s. "I can't pinpoint one thing in particular that made me do it," says Dupree. "I guess I just realized that I could, and I got a little record deal. I knew that I could be a leader and make some good music. There wasn't much of a difference playing-wise -- I just had to take initiative to play more solos, and act like a leader. I'm used to blending in with my surroundings and not taking anything away from the participants."

He'll have four kindred spirits from New Orleans at his side for his performance at Tipitina's -- bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Jeffrey "Jellybean" Alexander, keyboardist Marc Adams and saxophonist Brian "Breeze" Cayolle. Like Dupree, each man is well versed in multiple genres, and unfazed by musical labels. "They called it jazz when I did Bop 'n' Blues," says Dupree, "but I don't consider myself a jazz player. It was mainly because it was instrumental music. But I guess what I love to play is fatback rhythm and blues, funky, foot-tappin' stuff with a feeling."-->

Email music news to Scott Jordan at scottj@gambitweekly.com.

click to enlarge Guitarist Cornell Dupree has played with everyone from the Godfather and Queen of Soul to the King of the Blues.
  • Guitarist Cornell Dupree has played with everyone from the Godfather and Queen of Soul to the King of the Blues.
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