ONE of Halifax’s favourite adopted sons, the boxer and blues singer Champion Jack Dupree, is the latest local personality to find renewed fame through the pages of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the book of great Britons from the Romans to the 21st century.
Champion Jack, born William Thomas Dupree, lived a remarkable life which started in New Orleans in July 1909. But he was orphaned at age 12 months when his parents were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and he was raised in the Home for Colored Waifs and Strays, where he was taught to play the piano.
He became an itinerant musician, married and moved to Chicago, where he met Al Capone and became a boxer, starting with $10 fairground challenges and then becoming a serious professional who fought as a southpaw in 200 fights, in the course of which he fought Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney.
In 1940 he gave up boxing and began to record the blues with a voice described as “an amalgam of rural and city blues – the voice earthy, the delivery pungent and the emotion straight from the heart”.
During World War II he was drafted into the navy and afterwards resumed his singing career. But he suffered racial prejudice and, following a European tour, he decided to live in Britain. He met Shirley Ann Harrison, a waitress in a London club, who became his third wife. They married in 1969 and settled in Shirley’s home town – which happened to be Halifax. They lived here between the 1960s and the 1980s and their home in Ovenden became a haven for touring blues artists.
Dupree worked the clubs and also played with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Eric Clapton, among others.
He and Shirley divorced in 1976 and he moved to Copenhagen, then Zurich and finally settled in Hanover. His last planned British tour, in 1991, was cancelled because of his ill health and he died, aged 81, in 1992.
His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was written by Halifax historian John Hargreaves, who has written 37 biographies for the ODNB, including those of the ‘Railway Bishop’, Eric Treacy, who was Vicar of Halifax, Harry Corbett, creator of Sooty, Wilfred Pickles, the actor and broadcaster, Percy Shaw, inventor of catseyes, and many other Yorkshire figures.
The 60-volume ODNB was published in 2004 in succession to the Dictionary of National Biography (published in sections from 1885) and has since been added to online. It now includes biographies of more than 58,326 men and women who died in or before the year 2008.
The dictionary’s editor, Lawrence Goldman, writing about Dupree, commented: ‘The residents of Halifax were treated to the unfamiliar sight of a Lincoln Continental station wagon, sporting the name of its owner, the New Orleans blues pianist William Thomas Dupree, who lived in the town between the 1960s and 1980s. Dupree became one of the most prolific recording and performing blues artists of the postwar era, his rollicking style of playing influencing, among others, Fats Domino, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones.’