At least as far back as the legendary field recordings of Alan Lomax, capturing the authenticity of a seminal blues musician has been a dicey proposition. It takes a unique sort of artistic self-possession to render the recording medium transparent, and when it doesn't happen, the effect can be akin to watching animals in a zoo — or, for the hammy extrovert, dolphins performing water stunts to get their treats. But A Portrait of Champion Jack Dupree bucks the odds. While its protagonist, pianist Champion Jack Dupree, has recorded superior music for both Atlantic (including his masterpiece, Blues From the Gutter, in 1958) and King, this superbly edited compilation of his final three discs for Rounder is one of the most palpable blues autobiographies ever made, an inseparable mixture of music and stories that never once strike a false note.
Dupree led a life rife with riveting events. He lost his parents in a fire that may or may not have been started by the Ku Klux Klan, was sent to the Colored Waifs' Home for Boys in New Orleans (Louis Armstrong is another alumnus), had more than 100 fights as a professional boxer, was a World War II POW for two years in Japan, was one of the first blues artists to relocate in Europe. At the age of 81, he returned home to New Orleans and recorded the three albums from which Portrait is derived in the final two years of his life.
Portrait delivers a three-dimensional display of the man who lived that life. Dupree leaves most of the specific details to the historians and follows his instincts. "Freedom" starts out talking about Martin Luther King Jr., but eventually hones in the liberation of playing a piano using both black and white keys. "Skit Skat" is classic barrelhouse blues, but it doesn't stop Dupree from quoting the "here comes the bride," section of wedding music, or from him remarking in the intro to "Dupree Special," how often his Crescent City colleague Professor Longhair used to cover his composition.
There are heart-rending moments — Dupree mentioning his inability to read and write during "School Days," his woe of abandonment during "They Gave Me Away," and the self-explanatory "Give Me The Flowers While I'm Livin'" — that could easily be bathetic or cynically manipulative if Dupree wasn't so self-evidently speaking and playing from his heart. And they matched by the rollicking revelry — often nostalgic — of "Hometown New Orleans" the blues standard "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," and "When I'm Drinkin'." As final imprints go, Portrait of a Champion is deep, and still fresh.