Cornell Dupree, rhythm-and-blues guitarist, dies at 69

May 10, 2011

Cornell Dupree, 68, the rhythm-and-blues guitarist whose work graced innumerable recordings by artists including Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt and Mariah Carey, died May 8 at his home in Fort Worth. He had emphysema and was awaiting a lung transplant.

As a mainstay of New York recording studios, Mr. Dupree’s career spanned more than four decades and, by his estimation, nearly 2,500 albums.

He was among the elite in a small cadre of musicians who turned in memorable, often crucial hooks in a song and did not mind being overshadowed by the main performer. Writer and guitarist Josh Alan Friedman called Mr. Dupree “the ultimate unshowoff.”

Some of his prettiest guitar lines colored one of the most melancholy — and sentimental — songs in rhythm and blues, Brook Benton’s 1970 recording of “Rainy Night in Georgia.”

His guitar engaged Franklin in bluesy conversation on “Respect” (1967), helped take saxophonist King Curtis to church on the gospel-flavored ballad “Soul Serenade” (1964) and later laid a rhythmic foundation for Carey’s 1991 hit “Emotions.”

“It was our practice to use three or even more guitarists on a record session,” said Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler in the liner notes to Mr. Dupree’s 1995 album, “Bop’n’Blues.”

“Time and again what we would get into was a hellacious mess as the three guitarists got in each other’s way,” said Wexler. “And so when Mr. Dupree, the pride of Fort Worth, came to our rescue, it was bye-bye to multiple guitarists because — miraculously, it seemed to me — one man playing rhythm and lead at the same time took the place of three.”

Cornell Luther Dupree was born Dec. 19, 1942, in Fort Worth. At 14, he was inspired to learn guitar after seeing a performance by bluesman Johnny “Guitar” Watson and soon started sitting in with older R&B musicians. In 1961, he was recruited to New York by King Curtis.

Curtis, in-demand as a session player, brought Mr. Dupree into the highly competitive New York studio scene with his band the Kingpins.

After the success of Franklin’s “Respect,” Mr. Dupree often found himself in the studio 10 hours a day, six days a week. The Kingpins also backed Franklin on the road.

In the 1970s, Mr. Dupree toured with the funk band Stuff, an all-star group that included drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Eric Gale and keyboardist Richard Tee. Though Stuff’s albums proved immensely popular in Japan and Europe, the online All Music Guide noted that the band — all studio musicians — sometimes sounded “as if they were waiting for the main soloist to show up.”

In later years, Mr. Dupree performed with the Soul Survivors, a group whose rotating personnel included such leading jazz lights as pianist Les McCann, organist Lonnie Smith and bassist Chuck Rainey.

Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Erma Kindles Dupree of Fort Worth; three children, James C. Dupree and Celestine Allan, both of Dallas, and Cornell L. Dupree III of Fort Worth; and nine grandchildren.

The guitarist recorded his 10th solo album in April even as he struggled with his illness. During a January performance in Austin, he had to be carried in a chair up a flight of stairs to the stage.

“I’m about a feeling,” Mr. Dupree once told the Houston Chronicle. “And playing the right thing at the right time.”

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