William Thomas Dupree was born in 1909 in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father was from the Belgian Congo and his mother was part African-American, part Cherokee. His parents ran a grocery store in the Irish Channel neighborhood and the family lived upstairs. When he was about one year old, the house was set on fire by the Ku Klux Klan and both his parents were killed. He grew up in the Colored Waifs Home in New Orleans where he received no schooling, but learned about music, cooking and fighting.
When he came out of the orphans’ home, he learned to play barrelhouse piano, especially from a pianist called Willie ‘Drive 'Em Down’ Hall. He made his living playing piano and fighting in the street for bets. In 1930 his first wife died and he began a life of traveling – living in Chicago, where he worked with Georgia Tom, and in Indianapolis, where he met Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr. He also worked as a cook. In Detroit, Joe Louis encouraged him to become a boxer, after which he fought 107 bouts, winning the Golden Gloves and other championships and picking up the nickname ‘Champion Jack’, which he used the rest of his life. He returned to Chicago in 1939 and joined a circle of recording artists including Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, who introduced him to record producer Lester Melrose. During World War II he served as a cook in the United States Navy. His ship went down in the Pacific, where he was rescued by the Japanese and sent to Japan as a prisoner of war for two years.
After the war he moved to New York, where he made multiple recordings for many labels, including his legendary 1958 album for Atlantic Records, Blues From The Gutter. He went to England shortly thereafter, where he settled and got married. Through the sixties and the beginning of the seventies he lived in Halifax, England, and briefly in Zürich, Switzerland. In 1975, after getting divorced, he moved to Hannover, Germany, where he lived until he died of cancer in 1992.
He toured constantly throughout his years in Europe, recording almost everywhere he went. I really think he is the bluesman with the most recordings in history. He invented songs for every recording he made – songs that in many cases he would only sing that one time. The first time he was recording for Rounder Records in New Orleans in 1990. They had booked the studio for two days, and after they were finished, there was material for at least three albums. After the first take, producer Ron Levy said, ‘Wow, that was great, Jack! Why don’t you do it again so we have an alternate take?’ ‘Oh, yeah’, Jack said, and then he did something else.
He visited Denmark very often the during his years in Europe. He always spoke very highly of the time he spent here, playing and recording with bands like Papa Bue’s Viking Jazz Band and Fessor’s Big City Band, and later the Kenn Lending Blues Band. He recorded for Storyville Records every time he was in Copenhagen, especially in the sixties. The music in this box set is from these great recordings.
Jack always referred to himself as ‘a real bluesman’, which he definitely was. But being his guitar player, travel companion and friend over the years, I learned a lot about what that meant to his generation of black musicians – or ‘musicianers’ as he preferred to call them. The designation ‘bluesman’ covers much more than just music – he’s the figure that W. E. B. Dubois referred to when he wrote: ‘The Priest or Medicine Man was the chief surviving institution that African slaves brought with them. He appeared early on the plantation and found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people.’