Just the other day I thought about Cornell Dupree, as I often do whenever I hear some great guitar. So, I thought I’d share this little piece I wrote back in May of 2011 when Cornell passed away.
(This originally appeared in the old T-Bone’s Prime Cuts blog – May 11, 2011. http://tbonesprimecuts.blogspot.com)
Cornell Dupree joined King Curtis’ band, The Kingpins, when he was just a teenager. He played on the “Live at the Fillmore West” albums by King Curtis and Aretha Franklin. After becoming the guitarist in Atlantic Records “New York house band”- he played on records by Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, Miles Davis, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Herbie Mann, James Brown and Jimmy Smith. Cornell also released several stellar solo albums.
One of the funkiest guitarists I’ve ever heard. I admit to not knowing who he was as early as I should have. Of course, I heard the songs, just didn’t know it was him playing on them. In the 90’s, when I got on a real Soul/R&B kick and wanted to incorporate some of it into my guitar playing- I went to the local music store. I was flipping through the instructional books and videos… and there I found him. Cornell Dupree – “Mastering R&B Guitar” on Hot Licks video. I watched that tape till I wore it out! I had to go back and learn who he was and what all he did. To find out that he reportedly played on 2,500 sessions -thus earning the nickname, “Mr. 2500” – just blew my mind! From that point on, I felt it was my personal duty to bring his name up whenever music or guitar was being discussed.
So, the years go by and I’m watching the incredible Bill Withers’ documentary, “Still Bill.” And imagine my surprise when there’s a scene from a Withers tribute show and on stage is Cornell Dupree playing an instrumental version of “Grandma’s Hands.” Bill was so moved by it that he jumped up on stage, surprising everyone in the crowd, and sang along with Cornell. People in the crowd were crying and hugging each other. As happy as that made me, it also made me sad seeing that Cornell needed an oxygen tank. Turns out that he suffered from emphysema and was going to need a lung transplant. They had a big fundraiser concert for him in New York back in March, unfortunately- Cornell didn’t make it. He passed away this past Sunday, May 8th. He was 69 years old.
To say I’m sad about this is an understatement. Even though I never met him, I felt like I knew him. I had read so much about him and watched so many videos- both of him playing and being interviewed. From everything I can gather, he was as great a person as he was a musician… and that’s saying a lot! The next time you hear “Respect” by Aretha or “Rainy Night in Georgia” by Brook Benton or the great live album by Donny Hathaway… remember that it’s Cornell Dupree on the guitar.
His widow Erma Dupree said her husband would want to be remembered as “a great musician, a friend and someone who could get along with anybody.” What a great tribute to the man.
T-Bone Mathley is the host of T-Bone’s Prime Cuts on WICR 88.7 in Indianapolis. Contributing Editor for Volume Treble Bass. Music journalist, Guitarist, Doggy Dad, Detroit Tiger fan…