This is a humorous story from Ray
Smith, about the great Champion Jack Dupree and how he acquired his 'Champion'
name. It's totally 'tongue in cheek' and written in 'Lankyspeak' (Lancashire
dialect). We hope you like it.
Beamer stopped dead in his tracks. Rubbed his
eyes and shook his head. No, it couldn’t be, could it? Not here in Slackbottom,
surely? But yes, there it was, as he slowly turned his head for another look at
the garish poster that had caught his eye. Stuck to the ‘Forthcoming
Attractions’ notice board on display in the window of the Servicemen’s Club, and
written in bright fluorescent yellow and red lettering, Beamer could plainly
BY POPULAR DEMAND
FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY
ON SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 20TH
CHAMPION JACK DUPREE
BIG BINGO 8-30 PM
DOORS OPEN 7-30 PM
Beamer’s eyes opened wide and his jaw sagged as
he excitedly read and re-read the poster. Jack Dupree! What a scoop for the
club! He’d have to tell all the lads about this, and he could more or less
personally guarantee a full house on the night. He mentally ticked off the weeks
left before Champion Jack Dupree hit town!
In the annals of myth surrounding the small West
Pennine town of Slackbottom, that night has become a local legend. The townsfolk
still swear to this day that it was at this concert and on that night that Jack
Dupree acquired his Champion prefix. No matter that he was advertised as such on
the club’s very own poster in the window. No matter that he was listed as such
in Beamer’s copy of ‘The Guinness Who’s Who of Blues’ and in countless other
books and magazines published over the years. No matter that his many record
sleeves and CD covers all sported this name. No, the locals cried indignantly to
a man when music scholars pointed to other origins for the name, the people of
Slackbottom christened Mr Jack Dupree Champion. Or to be more specific, by one
of the all-time stalwarts of the Servicemen’s Club, Owd Billy. Over the years
many, many more people have claimed to be at the concert than were actually
there, even though the club was literally bursting at the seams as per Beamer’s
initial prediction. The size of the audience seemed to grow with every
re-telling of the story. Such is the stuff of legends!
Boxer, hobo, cook, painter, comedian, dancer,
storyteller, Jack Dupree was all these things, but above all he was a blues
pianist and singer. Various dates have been given for his date of birth, with
July 4th 1910 being the one that’s generally accepted, in New Orleans,
Louisiana. Christened William Thomas and orphaned in his early years, Dupree was
raised in the Coloured Waifs Home for Boys until the age of 14. Louis Armstrong
was an earlier graduate from this same home. After leaving he led a marginal
existence on the streets of New Orleans. He was begging and singing for tips
whilst learning piano from the musicians who played the clubs in the red light
district. Along with music and casual labouring, Dupree pursued a career as a
boxer. He was small and toughened by his years on the streets and found a place
at Kid Green’s Boxing School on Rampart Street. Dupree was soon skilful enough
to join the school’s stable of fighters in the lightweight division. It was this
early involvement in the fight game that led him to drop his given names,
William Thomas, in favour of ‘Champion Jack’, as a tribute to Jack Johnson, the
first black world champion. When Kid Green wasn’t organising fights, Jack would
hop the freight trains on the Illinois Central line and hobo northwards. During
the Depression of the 1930’s, money was even more scarce with boxing engagements
getting harder to find, so Dupree took to the hobo’s life on a full-time basis.
He travelled around the country for over three years, getting casual work where
he could and sleeping in the makeshift camps by the railroad. It was while
living in these hobo jungles that Jack had his first cooking lessons.
Retiring from the ring in 1940, he headed for New
York but only reached Indianapolis. Here he rapidly became a star of the local
black entertainment scene, as a comedian and dancer as well as a musician, and
made his recording debut. Through his records Jack Dupree became more widely
known, but the USA’s entry into World War II put a temporary stop to his musical
career. Drafted into the US Navy as a cook, he spent three years in the Pacific.
Jack finally reached New York by taking his discharge from the Navy there in
1945. He resumed his recording career with several different labels and lived in
Brooklyn until 1959. In that year he moved to Europe and on a visit to Britain
Jack met and married a Yorkshire woman 30 years his junior. They lead a nomadic
existence throughout the 1960’s, moving to Switzerland, then Denmark, and back
to Yorkshire. As one of the few blues singers resident in Europe, Jack was able
to get many live engagements. In the late 1960’s he was a familiar figure in
Britain, where his personality seemed to appeal. It was during this time that he
played the now legendary gig at the Servicemen’s Club.
The word had spread far and wide about Jack
Dupree’s appearance in Slackbottom and during the last few days leading up to
the concert excitement was running at a fever pitch. The event had eclipsed all
other topics of conversation in the town for weeks, with copies of his records
being eagerly sought after. The second-hand record shops and flea market stalls
in neighbouring West Pennine towns were trawled relentlessly by enthusiasts who
had got the bug.
Saturday, September 20th dawned bright and sunny
with just a little nip in the air to remind people of the approaching autumn.
Slackbottom’s shops and market stalls were packed with shoppers that morning
before most of them had even opened properly. By lunchtime the town was deserted
and all of the shops closed up for the day. An eerie silence settled over
Slackbottom as the final few hours of waiting in nervous anticipation began.
At five-thirty Beamer could stand it no longer.
After a shave and a hurried change of clothes, he sped down to The Ferret.
Walking into the taproom he realised that he’d left it a bit late. All the
regulars were already plumbed in and on their second, third or even fourth pint.
Spotting his pal Zoot at the bar, Beamer squeezed his way through the crowd to
his side. Tanner, ever the shrewd landlord, knew full well that practically the
whole town was going to try and squash themselves into the Servicemen’s Club
later that night. The Ferret would be deserted by eight o’clock, so Tanner had
put a chalked ‘Happy Hour’ sign over the taproom bar stating ‘2 Pints For The
Price Of One.’ Although his red face was sweating like mad, there was also a
huge grin plastered across it from all the trade he’d pulled in. He thought he’d
pop down to the club himself later on if things were going to be as quiet as he
thought they’d be.
At seven-twenty, some kind of unseen and unspoken
sign rippled through the taproom. Pint glasses were rapidly drained and
cigarettes stubbed out as the crowd surged en masse to the door. Beamer and Zoot
were swept along with this tide of humanity and soon found themselves entering
the club. As they moved to the tables near the front of the stage, Beamer was
surprised to find Owd Billy already seated there, puffing away on his pipe.
‘Evenin’, Billy,’ greeted Beamer. ‘Didn’t know you’re a blues fan.’
‘Blues, what’s that?’ Owd Billy replied. ‘Ah’m ‘ere fer t’ Big Bingo. An’
anyroad, Ah allus sit ‘ere in this seat, ‘ave done fer thirty odd yer.’
‘Billy, this chap’s a good ‘un. He’s one of the
best at singing down home blues and playing the piano, and he’s a bit of a
comic, too,’ added Zoot.
Owd Billy removed the pipe from his mouth. Beamer
and Zoot glanced at each other having seen this trick many times before and
knowing what was coming next.
‘Well,’ he said jabbing his pipe at the piano on
the stage, ‘Ah’ll gi’ this chap a good coat o’ lookin’ at fer a bit after t’
bingo. God knows ‘e can’t be much worse that some o’ t’ turns we’ve ‘ad on ‘ere
lately. It’s that blasted new Concert Sec,’ he continued, his pipe now waving
vaguely in the direction of the crowd around the bar. ‘Ever sin’ ‘e got on t’
committee, ‘e’s ‘ad these ‘ere new-fangled ideas.’
Owd Billy paused and turned his pipe round to
face Beamer and Zoot across the table. The stem was on a level with their faces
and about a foot away. Two pairs of eyes fixed their gaze steadily on the pipe,
much as a rabbit must do when it’s caught by the hypnotic behaviour of a weasel.
‘Not content,’ he said, complimenting each word
with a poke of his pipe, ‘Wi’ gerrin’ rid o’ th’ organist an’ t’ drummer, ‘e
starts these ‘ere Sat’day night concerts. All we want is a good sing-song after
t’ bingo, but no, ‘e ‘as ter get all these fancy turns as is costin’ t’ club God
knows ‘ow much brass each week. Like this chap tonight. What kind o’ music does
‘e sing agen?’
‘Blues,’ Beamer intoned slowly, shaking his head
and trying to break his eyes away from the pipe.
‘Blues! What kind of a name is that fer music?
Yer can’t sing songs about a blasted colour all night,’ Owd Billy said loudly,
banging his fist down onto the table with a crash.
This had the effect of breaking the spell on both
Beamer and Zoot. They sat back in their seats blinking their eyes and laughing
quietly, both realising that they’d fallen for Owd Billy’s party trick yet
again. The sudden noise had quietened the concert room and the crowd at the bar,
but seeing that all was well with the three friends the hubbub quickly resumed
The club soon filled up, with many people having
to stand at the back of the concert room when all the seats were taken. The Big
Bingo, main event of the evening for many people there that night including Owd
Billy, came and went not without incident. The Bingo Caller’s voice went and he
finally left the stage with a sore throat after repeated calls to give order
only met with a chorus of jeers and an increase in volume every time.
The crowd chattered and shuffled and started
getting restless. Most of them had only come for one thing and were getting
impatient. A slow handclap started somewhere in the back of the room and could
be heard through the noise and the haze of smoke.
The Servicemen’s Club had never witnessed
anything remotely like this, and one or two members of the committee nervously
glanced at each other and their wives. Beamer managed to catch the Concert
Secretary’s eye as he emerged from the Gents. He mopped his face with a large
white handkerchief as he approached their table.
‘If you don’t want a riot, you’d better get Jack
on stage now,’ Beamer had to shout above the din to make himself heard. The
Concert Sec nodded in agreement. Still wiping his face he hurriedly pushed his
way past the stage and disappeared into the artiste’s dressing room.
And suddenly, there was The Man himself, striding
confidently across the stage. Raising one arm in a friendly gesture, he smiled
broadly and took his seat at the piano as a tremendous welcome of cheers,
whistles and applause reverberated through the concert room.
Adjusting the microphone he said simply, ‘Hi, I’m
Jack Dupree,’ then launched into a rousing barrelhouse boogie that could have
come straight out of a New Orleans cathouse. That first number was enough to
bring the house down in itself, but he settled in and played songs from his long
and varied career.
Humorous songs and songs of pathos. Of cheating
women and bad whiskey. Of chain gangs and the inhuman prison system. Songs of
down home cooking and good-time girls. Hot stomping dance music that had every
foot in the club tapping.
In between the songs he sprinkled jokes and tall
stories that he’d accumulated over the years and had everyone laughing
uproariously. His subjects were often those of the seaside postcard, of
mothers-in-law, drunks and honeymoon couples. The audience loved him and he had
them in the palm of his hand as he played for over two hours. Even then they
wouldn’t let him leave the stage without several encores.
The Concert Sec finally doused the stage lights
to signal the end of the show during what turned out to be the very last encore
number. This was a poignant slow blues ballad that spoke of utter loneliness and
lost unrequited love delivered in a beautiful haunting tone of voice.
You could have heard a pin drop anywhere in the
club during this song, so intense was the rapt silence with which it was
received. And it was during this last number that Beamer noticed Owd Billy. He
nudged Zoot with his elbow and nodded across the table in Billy’s direction.
Zoot glanced across to see Owd Billy with his jaw agape, eyes wide and staring
and with a long dead pipe clutched in his hand and completely forgotten about.
The Man had worked his magic, turning the tables
on Billy and hypnotising him with his beguiling songs and stagecraft. Billy’s
ignorance of the blues tradition and his disdain for musical artistes in general
had been totally swept away by this master craftsman from New Orleans.
The last memorable notes hung in the charged
atmosphere and slowly died away as the Concert Sec switched the stage lights
full on again. Jack Dupree rose to his feet and bowed his head in those few
quiet moments before the audience erupted. And it was just then, in those
precious seconds of complete silence that the legend was born.
For there was Owd Billy suddenly shooting to his
feet and stumbling to the foot of the stage. With tears streaming down his face
and twisting his flat cap in his hands, he raised his head and looked The Man in
the spotlight full in the eyes.
‘Ee,’ he was heard to say fondly, ‘that wer’
proper champion, Jack!’
Ray Smith 1999
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Beat The Winter blues festival
in Ramsbottom, Lancashire
Part of the Ramsbottom Delta, Lancashire
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