Cornell Dupree: Guitarist who played on more than 2,500 jazz, rock and soul tracks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The American guitarist Cornell Dupree lent his instrumental prowess to over 2,500 recordings by some of the biggest jazz, soul and rock performers of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, including Miles Davis, Archie Shepp, Grover Washington Jr, James Brown, Ray Charles, Donny Hathaway, Wilson Pickett, Bill Withers, Duane Allman, Joe Cocker, Paul Simon and James Taylor.

His crisp, precise, understated playing proved especially effective on Brook Benton's gorgeous rendition of the Tony Joe White composition "Rainy Night in Georgia", where Dupree's dreamy, floating guitar introduction provides the perfect setting for the track's wistful mood and offers a textbook example of the sessioneer's art.

Jerry Wexler, who made him a mainstay of the Aretha Franklin records he produced for Atlantic Records – including "Bridge over Troubled Water", "Day Dreaming", "I'm in Love" and "Spanish Harlem", which all topped the R&B charts in the US in the early 1970s – said Dupree was "the first guitarist I'd encountered who could simultaneously play rhythm and lead. Until then, we'd required two or three guitarists to handle those diverse functions."

In the mid-'70s, Dupree joined other leading New York session players – the bassist Gordon Edwards, the drummer Steve Gadd, the guitarist Eric Gale, the keyboard-player Richard Tee – in forming the jazz-funk group Stuff, who made three acc-laimed studio albums for Warners. He also released 10 albums under his own name, including Bop'n'Blues, an apt description of his style, and Uncle Funky, one of his sobriquets.

A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Dupree was an only child who took up the saxophone in his teens but made the switch to the electric guitar after seeing fellow Texan Johnny "Guitar" Watson, a flashy player whose showmanship he never tried to emulate. "No matter what I play, I just stay with the feeling of the song," Dupree said in 1995. "I don't press, and I don't try to impress. Be yourself and play what comes natural – that's my thing."

He was also influenced by the Texas bluesmen T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins, the Bobby "Blue" Bland accompanist Wayne Bennett and the country and western musicians Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb.

In 1961, the self-taught 18-year-old so impressed the saxophonist and bandleader King Curtis that he was invited to join his backing group The Kingpins, and moved to New York with his young wife Emma the following year. Dupree's playing shone on the King Curtis hits "Soul Twist" (1962), "Soul Serenade" (1964) and "Memphis Soul Stew" (1967) and also when The Kingpins supported the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965.

After Curtis signed to Atlantic, The Kingpins toured with Franklin, and the guitarist also excelled on Aretha Live at Fillmore West and Amazing Grace, US Top Ten albums in 1971 and 1972, and myriad other productions overseen by Wexler and Arif Mardin for the Queen of Soul and other acts. "I just know that during all that while with Aretha, I immensely enjoyed it," Dupree said. "It was all about the feeling, and the way she expressed herself vocally was an inspiration for me."

A consummate and versatile sideman, he proved popular with musicians, vocalists and producers, and remained in demand over the next three decades, working across a range of genres with Harry Belafonte, Mariah Carey, Gene Harris, Lena Horne, Laura Nyro, Esther Phillips, Marlena Shaw, Ringo Starr, Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb. In the mid-'70s he was part of the original Saturday Night Live band and wrote a manual, Rhythm and Blues Guitar. His deft, fluid, effortless playing earned him a cult following in Japan, a country he visited regularly, and made him a favourite of the acid jazz crowd in the UK. In 2005 he returned to his home town, and died of emphysema while awaiting a lung transplant.

Hugh Gregory, the author of 1000 Great Guitarists, called Dupree, who played a Fender Telecaster for most of his career but later switched to a custom-made Yamaha, "a master of the lean, concise, authoritative solo."

Cornell Luther Dupree, guitarist and bandleader: born Fort Worth, Texas 19 December 1942; married 1958 Erma Kindles (two sons, one daughter); died Fort Worth, Texas 8 May 2011.