A remarkable number of important Black American bluesmen, as well as jazz musicians, singers and dancers, left the U.S. and made their home in Europe, most of them staying for the rest of their lives. Memphis Slim, Mickey Baker and Willie Mabon graced the city of Paris for many a year, Howard McCrary chose Birmingham, albeit it for a far-too-brief 18 months, and Little Willie Littlefield made Holland his home, as did former Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines and Tommy Dorsey drummer, Chicagoan Wallace Bishop. But they were not alone…
CHAMPION JACK DUPREE
I first met Champion Jack Dupree around 1964 when I put on what I laughingly called a Blues Festival with him, Buddy Guy and The Lone Cat Jesse Fuller at Birmingham’s College of Advanced Technology, now Aston University. I couldn’t quite understand why this legendary two-fisted blues and boogie piano giant lived in Halifax.
He explained in a BBC Radio 4 interview, “I was tired of living in America. I came to England and met my wife. She’s English, this is her home, so this is my home and I enjoy it. Now I’m English too, that’s why I love this place.”
William Thomas Dupree was born in Irish Channel, New Orleans, probably in 1910. His father was from the Belgian Congo, his mother part-Cherokee, part African American. Those early years are a little misty.
Some records say that he was orphaned at the age of eight, others, including Jack himself, say that his parents died in a fire at their home, murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. What is for sure is that as a child he spent many years in the very same Colored Waifs Home in New Orleans that at the same time housed Louis Armstrong. Jack learned piano from Willie Hall, who was known as Drive ‘Em Down and who Jack called Father.
He left the home at the age of 14, starting playing and singing in barrelhouses as well as working as a Spy Boy – does anyone know exactly what this was? – for the Yellow Pocahontas tribe of Mardi Gras Indians.
Dupree moved up to Chicago, then Indianapolis playing with Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr, doubling up by working as a cook. Moving to Detroit, he met up with the most famous boxer of that era, The Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, who inspired him to take up boxing as a professional. In the years 1932 to 1940, Jack went on to fight 107 bouts, winning a bunch of other prizes including a Golden Gloves and acquiring his soubriquet, “Champion”.
By the time he was 30 he was back in Chicago, working with Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy and recording for Lester Melrose, who of course appropriated many of Jack’s song copyrights. Along came World War II, Jack joined the U.S. Navy, served from 1941 to 1945 in the Pacific as a cook, was captured by the Japanese and spent two years in a prisoner of war camp.
Post-war, he enjoyed a commercial success with his “Walkin’ the Blues” which led to better gigs, a European tour and a 1959 performance at London School of Economics with Alexis Korner.
The following year Jack upped sticks, settling first in Zurich, Switzerland, before making his home in West Yorkshire where he married a girl from Halifax, Shirley Ann Harrison, whom he had met in London.
When Henry’s Blueshouse opened in 1968, unsurprisingly, the name Champion Jack Dupree was one of the first on the datesheet, and apart from Black Sabbath, he probably clocked up the greatest number of appearances there.
Those that remember the early Henry’s will know that most of the audience simply sat on the floor and probably chuckle at the memory that every time anyone got up to go get a drink, Jack would stop mid-song and call out, “Mine’s a pint of lager.”
Sadly, he and Shirley divorced in 1976 and he moved to Copenhagen, then Zurich and finally Hanover where he died of cancer aged 81 in 1992. As well as his fine singing and piano-playing, Jack was a terrific entertainer – and also a dancer. He sometimes recorded as Harelip Jack Dupree and he also worked occasionally as Meathead Jones.
Early in the 1970s, pianist/singer Curtis Jones was set to appear at Henry’s Blueshouse. We were all agog with excitement at the prospect of seeing and listening to this enigmatic blues legend close up.
Our only previous experience of hearing him live was on the Lippmann and Rau American Folk Blues Festival of 1968 which was filmed by the BBC – I hope that is still safe in the archive. On the afternoon of the scheduled gig, Curtis phoned me, sounding relaxed and ready to chat.
I asked where he was, and he told me cheerily, that he was in Houston, which completely floored me. I was beginning to get accustomed to the often eccentric behaviour of some of the bluesmen, but to be back in Texas when he was due to be on stage in Birmingham in a few hours times was a bit extreme.
I asked him, probably not over-politely what he was doing in Houston, to which he responded that he was waiting for a train. The truth slowly dawned on me, that he was maybe at Euston Station, on the way to Brum.
I asked him if he meant Euston, and he responded, clearly becoming exasperated by this dumb Englishman, “Yes man, Houston. Houston Station, London.”
He arrived at New Street Station, guitar case in one hand, suitcase in the other with a couple of suits on a coat hanger hooked over the back of his collar. He told me that he wasn’t actually living anywhere at the time, just hoboing from gig to gig, city to city, carrying with him all of his worldly possessions.
Curtis Jones was born in Naples, Texas, in 1906, one of seven children of farmers Willie and Agnes. Raised on a farm, he worked from the age of eight, learned guitar when he was ten and in his mid-teens formed his own group to play Vaudeville shows. He ran away from home at 16, often working outside of music, and serving a short prison sentence for bootlegging.
In 1925 he recorded with Papa Chitlins, a pseudonym of Alex Moore but, as far as anyone can tell, the record remains to this day unreleased. Curtis was always on the move, to Dallas, through the South, spending some time in New Orleans, somewhere along the way getting married twice to Lula, known as Lulu, and then to Bertha, both sometime in the 1930s, before fetching up in Chicago.
There he recorded what was to become his signature tune, “Lonesome Bedroom Blues”, for Vocalion in 1937. This not only became a hit, but is now a blues standard, still in the repertoire of many bluesmen.
He was subsequently to cut sides for Okeh, but seemed to take a break from recording for 10 years until 1952, when he recorded for Parrot, then Prestige/Bluesville and Delmark. In 1958 he was discovered by Blues enthusiasts living in a run-down apartment in Chicago. Reportedly, they helped him out and put him back on the road.
Curtis moved to Europe in 1962, first settling in France, notably featuring at The Trois Mailletz in Paris. He continued to tour through the continent and Morocco where he took a residency at The Basin Street Bar in Casablanca. In England he recorded for Decca and Blue Horizon and appeared in 1963 with the Chris Barber Band.
There must have been something in the make-up of Curtis Jones that gave him itchy feet. It appears that he continued to hobo through Europe until his death of heart failure in 1971 at The Schwabinger Krankenhaus hospital in Munich. He was buried in the Friedhof am Perlacher Forst Cemetery, but as he had died in penury and no-one had paid for the upkeep of his grave, it was sold off in 1979.
A lot of folk in Birmingham fondly recall this fine, under-appreciated musician whom blues authority Paul Oliver described as “The bluesman’s blues singer.”
GENE “THE MIGHTY FLEA” CONNERS
When the Johnny Otis Show came to the UK in 1972, I got to hang out with them while they rehearsed at The 100 Club in London, and found myself chumming up with the trombone player, The Mighty Flea, otherwise known as Gene Connors, or, as on his passport, Eugene Conners.
Flea was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1930, reportedly played with New Orleans legend Papa Celestin when he was 11 years old and with territory bands as a teenager before joining the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.
During the 1950s Flea really came to be a force to be reckoned with, joining the sensational Johnny Otis Show, leaving to feature with the Ray Charles Orchestra, then with Dinah Washington before returning to the Otis show in time to feature his terrific playing in the Clint Eastwood movie, “Play Misty for Me”. The Monterey Jazz Festival sequence is a killer. As Clint wanders amiably through the crowd, the Otis Band rocks everybody into bad health with the Flea feature, “Preacher’s Blues”. A visibly impressed Johnny Otis announces “That was triple-tonguing, man, The Mighty Flea. Let’s give his tongue a big hand!”
By the time the Otis show reached the 100 Club, Flea wasn’t quite showing Otis quite the respect he should have, according to his bandleader, and there had been a couple of squabbles. On the second rehearsal day, Flea insisted we stay in the Green Man for another taste while the rest of the musicians returned to the rehearsal. When we did get back to the 100 Club, Johnny Otis was not at all pleased and proceeded to give Flea a tongue-lashing, which in the circumstances was probably unwise.
A small, fiercely proud man, Flea did not take kindly at being bawled at in front of the band, particularly the girls, vocal groups The Three Tons of Joy and The Otisettes. Tiring of the situation, Flea packed away his trombone, told Otis that he was quitting, and instructed me to follow him, only pausing long enough to yell, “Otis. Go get yourself a restaurant like all them other Greeks.”
Outside, on Oxford Street, Flea displayed a typically American lack of knowledge of UK’s geography by saying, “You live here. Call a cab, let’s go home”.
Back in Birmingham, he stayed with me a few days before moving to France to live with a girl he had met on tour. We stayed very much in touch and I produced his Big Bear album, “Let the Good Times Roll”, which also featured Mickey Baker with a largely Brummie team: Mike Burney, Bob Hall, Graham Gallery and Pete York.
Flea continued to be a star turn. We later recorded his “Boogie Down Wit’ The Boogie Man” with Birmingham soul funk band Muscles and in 1995 he guested on the King Pleasure & The Biscuit Boys album “Blues & Rhythm Revue Volume One”, along with Charles Brown, Val Wiseman and Howard McCrary. He always claimed that his vocal on “So Tired” was the best he ever did.
Flea was a regular for many years at The Birmingham Jazz Festival where he was always a great attraction. In the meantime, where he lived depended on where his current squeeze lived, following his heart from France to Copenhagen and finally to Germany. He stayed there until returning to the States to live in Arizona, where he died of lung cancer in 2010. He was 79 years old.