Cornell Dupree dies at 68; versatile guitarist


Cornell Dupree, a versatile guitarist whose long, productive career included performances and recordings with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Miles Davis and Lena Horne, died Sunday at his home in Fort Worth. Dupree, who had emphysema, was 68.

Often called “Mr. 2,500” as a reference to the number of recordings he participated in, occasionally as a leader but mostly as a first-call sideman, Dupree adapted easily to the changing demands of soul, R&B, pop, jazz and beyond during his nearly five-decade career.

Working in the studio, Dupree was renowned for his ability to add something uniquely unexpected to the music. Although his playing was rooted in Texas blues, he quickly developed a style of his own, investing solo lines with subtle harmonic references and bringing rhythm passages to life with buoyantly propulsive accents.


Add to that his on-the-spot creativity, which offered hooks and rhythmic chording to catch a listener’s ear. Some examples include his slippery, sliding lines at the start of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” and his rhythm plucking that supports the brass on Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.”

“No matter what I play, I just stay with the feeling of the song,” Dupree told the Boston Herald in 1995. “I don’t press, and I don’t try to impress. Be yourself and play what comes natural — that’s my thing.”

Cornell Luther Dupree Jr. was born in Fort Worth on Dec. 19, 1942. He was barely into his teens when he heard Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Fascinated by Watson’s pioneering electric guitar techniques, Dupree decided to teach himself the instrument, primarily by sitting in with older blues and R&B guitarists.

When he was 18, Dupree was heard by saxophonist, bandleader and fellow Texan King Curtis. Impressed by the young guitarist, Curtis promised Dupree a job if he continued practicing. A year later, Curtis brought Dupree to New York to join the Curtis band, the King Pins.

By the late 1960s, Dupree was at Atlantic Records, his sound and style playing a significant role in the shaping of the label’s classic soul recordings. Producer Jerry Wexler, writing in the liner notes for Dupree’s “Bop ‘N’ Blues,” recalled how his usual practice of employing three guitars in the rhythm section changed dramatically when Dupree came on the scene. “Miraculously, it seemed to me,” wrote Wexler, “one man, playing rhythm and lead at the same time, took the place of three.”

It was a style that kept Dupree in the studios for long working hours, usually with pop music’s most visible artists.


He was often asked about his personal favorites among the 2,500 recordings he made. He told the Syracuse Post-Standard that his favorites included King Curtis’ “Live at the Fillmore,” Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” and Esther Phillips’ “From a Whisper to a Scream.” In other interviews, he also referred to “Donny Hathaway Live” and “Aretha Franklin Live at Fillmore West,” as well as the Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb recording “Guilty.” But, Dupree was quick to add, “it’s hard to remember them all.”

Dupree began recording on his own in the 1970s with “Teasin’.” His Grammy-nominated “Coast to Coast” in 1988 took him in a more jazz-oriented direction in the company of saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman and pianist Ellis Marsalis. In the ‘90s he shifted musical gears again, this time toward funk and jazz.

From the mid-’70s to the early ‘80s, Dupree was a member of the group Stuff. A jazz-funk band recalling the urban blues bands of the ‘40s, it included keyboardist Richard Tee (with whom Dupree worked frequently), drummers Steve Gadd and Chris Parker, guitarist Eric Gale, and bassist Gordon Edwards. All five of the band’s albums went gold, and one received a Grammy nomination. The group’s members also backed Paul Simon, Joe Cocker, Franklin and John Lennon, among others.

More recently, Dupree occasionally toured with a New Orleans-oriented group called the Bayou Buddies. By the mid-2000s he was performing with the Soul Survivors, an ensemble featuring pianist Les McCann and saxophonist Ronnie Cuber. Despite his illness, Dupree reportedly recorded his 10th album in April.

Dupree is survived by his wife, Erma Kindles Dupree; children Celestine Allan, James C. Dupree, and Cornell Dupree III; and nine grandchildren.