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Denise LaSalle (An Appreciation)
February 10, 2018:
Denise LaSalle: An AppreciationDaddy B. Nice notes: David Whiteis is the author of Southern Soul Blues, for which Denise LaSalle wrote the Forward. He is currently at work on an upcoming biography of Denise LaSalle.
When Denise LaSalle passed away on January 8, 2018, southern soul lost one of its most distinctive and joyful voices, as well as one of its most significant stylists. Most of all, though, we lost an effervescent, life-affirming presence, a woman who cultivated both fans and friends with dedication and grace--one of the music’s most beloved figures, both onstage and off.
The general outlines of her biography are well known. Born Ora Dee Allen in the country near Sidon, Mississippi on July 16 (various years have been cited for her birth, but it is now clear that she was born in 1934, somewhat earlier than most biographies have suggested), she grew up in the town of Belzoni, immersed in gospel music but also keenly aware of the blues and R&B that emanated from local jukes and cafes, and which played on the radio. Unhappy with the conditions that African-American people in Mississippi had to face in those days, she married young and moved to Chicago. That marriage didn’t work out, and she returned to Belzoni for a while, but by the early ‘50s she’d moved back north to stay.
In Chicago she held down day jobs, sang in a gospel quartet, and investigated the city’s thriving music scene. Then, in 1963, she met Billy “The Kid” Emerson, a legendary Sun Records blues/R&B recording artist who had also penned several songs (“Red Hot,” “When it Rains it Pours”) that had crossed over to become rockabilly/rock & roll standards. Emerson became her mentor, and in 1966 he released her first single, “A Love Reputaion” (co-written by Lee Baker Jr., who would eventually rise to fame as the bluesman Lonnie Brooks), on his Tarpon label. Chess picked the record up the following year. She released a couple more singles on Chess in 1968: One, “Private Property”/”Been Waiting,” she had recorded under the aegis of Emerson; the other, “Countdown”/”A Promise Is a Promise,” was the debut effort by the new team of Denise and Bill Jones, a Chicagoan with whom she initiated the labels Crajon, Parka, and Gold Star. Not incidentally, she also married him, becoming both his business partner and his life partner, at least for the next few years...
By this time, she had taken the stage name Denise LaSalle – “Denise,” because she thought it sounded more elegant and professional than “Dee;” “LaSalle” after a character she saw in a Mary Worth comic strip. ...The labels she co-owned with Bill Jones made some noise on the charts with a few of the artists they signed – both Bill Coday and the Sequins scored hits – but Denise’s own big break came in 1971, when the Detroit-based Westbound imprint signed her and released “Trapped By a Thing Called Love.” "Trapped" was her debut on the national charts, and it rapidly became a No. 1 R&B hit. She followed it up with “Now Run and Tell That” the following year, and she remained a steady presence on the R&B charts throughout most of the decade. In 1974, having separated from Bill Jones, she moved to Memphis.
As soul music gave way to disco, she began finding it difficult to sustain her success as a charting R&B artist. Then, in 1982, not long after she’d been released from MCA, she was contacted by Malaco Records’ legendary promo man Dave Clark, who asked her if she could write a new song for Z.Z. Hill to follow up Hill’s “Down Home Blues,” which had launched the soul-blues/southern soul juggernaut just a little bit before then. The song she wrote, “Someone Else is Steppin’ In,” was set to the same changes and the same rhythm as Hill’s smash. It was also a classic LaSalle tale of erotic combat that allowed Hill to inhabit the persona of a wrong-doing man paying for his transgressions--a surefire selling point in a market where women have traditionally been the major consumers. It became a standard almost immediately (although, like many “hits” in the burgeoning soul-blues/southern soul genre, it never charted nationally). She signed with the label soon thereafter, and before long she was one of the leading lights of the new style, rooted in the blues and deep-soul traditions but with enough modernist touches to attract a diverse fan base and keep its artists working steadily, both in the studio and on the road.
As a “soul-blues” artist, first with Malaco and then later with Ecko, she made some of her finest recordings--“Your Husband Is Cheating On Us,” "Lady In the Street," “Drop That Zero,” and her own definitive, r-rated version of “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In” are only a few of the better-known. Her voice deepened and coarsened over the years, but in most cases that only accentuated the bluesy toughness of her material. She also cultivated her bawdy image, especially in performance--“Snap, Crackle, and Pop,” a latter-day paean to cunnilingus in which she demanded that her man “just treat it like a lollipop” and then popped her tongue and smacked her lips to imitate the sound of a satisfied “coochie,” was not atypical.
But there was a purpose behind the pose. Even at her most scabrous, Denise charged her routines with a righteous undercurrent of sisterly solidarity. Like her friend and contemporary Millie Jackson, she honed the art of framing parables of empowerment in confrontational and profane language. She made it clear that she was speaking and singing (and cussing) on behalf of women who’d been dissatisfied and betrayed, and weren’t going to take it any longer. Thus, her indictment of macho poseurs who acted as if a woman should be glad just to “have a dick in the house,” and her insistence that satisfying a woman –sexually, financially, and emotionally– should be the first duty of a husband or a lover. “Real women would like you lick it before you stick it!” she declared, and if a man wouldn’t do a woman right, it was time to “drop that zero, and get yourself a hero.”...
Such proclamations bespoke a powerful ethic underlying her rowdy onstage persona; they served to redeem both the singer and her message. In the Queen’s domain, profanity--even promiscuity--in the service of justice was no vice....At the same time, there was another side to Denise LaSalle. She could mine depths of melancholy and regret (“Why Am I Missing You”); elevate her voice and her spirit in praise of the Lord (e.g., the gospel albums she released on her own Ordena and Angel In the Midst imprints), or spin an inspirational tale of perseverance and hard-won victory over poverty and oppression (her sublime and too-often overlooked “Child of the Ghetto”), as readily and eloquently as she could deliver a gritty blues testimonial (“It Be’s That Way Sometimes”) or a deliciously scabrous juke-joint Kama Sutra (“Snap, Crackle, and Pop”). Songs like these reflected a woman of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual substance, a life traveler who cared deeply about the world and its people, a wordsmith and poet whose serious creations invoked her love for the blues tradition and its importance in American music (her prose poem “America’s Prodigal Son”) and her righteous anger about the way her people had been treated throughout history, and the way they have continued to struggle into the present day (her poem “Cry of the Black Soul”).
For those of us who were privileged to know her personally, though, it’s her love, and the depth of her spirit, that we will miss most. In her later years she was known, at least in the South, as the “Queen of the Blues” (the actual coronation occurred in her hometown of Belzoni in 2009), but I will always think of her, first and foremost, as the Queen of Hearts: I have known very few people with a heart as deep, as tender, and as giving as the heart of Denise LaSalle. The love she shared with James Wolfe, her husband for the last 41 years of her life; her dedication to her children and grandchildren (as well as the countless “adopted” children, including many of her band members, whom she collected over the years); her profound gifts as a loyal and loving friend--these, as much as the music she made, represent the living legacy of Denise LaSalle.
After I wrote a chapter on her for my book Southern Soul Blues, (which also includes “America’s Prodigal Son”), Denise contacted me and told me she wanted us to work together on her autobiography; we had been working on it for over a year when she passed. The last time we spent together was three days in Milan, Tennessee, at the rehabilitation center where she was staying, following a leg amputation she had undergone in October of 2017. Although there were still plenty of things we wanted to talk about, we got enough done for the book--if all goes well, it will come out sometime next year. The working title was Still the Queen (also the title of her 2002 debut on Ecko), but now that my beloved friend has made her transition into glory, I believe the title will be Always the Queen.
Denise called me on January 6, about a week after we’d spent those final precious days together in Milan. Characteristically gracious, she thanked me effusively for having spent those days with her, and we talked for a while, making plans to see each other again as soon as I could make it back South. The last words we said to each other were, “I love you.”
CODA: “When the Gates Swing Open” On the evening of January 8, the Jackson, Tennessee-based southern soul radio deejay Jazzii A was putting together a program in honor of Otis Clay, who had died two years earlier. In his memory, she presented a show honoring artists who had passed away--a “Soul Heaven” theme--culminating with a segment featuring Clay himself. The final song she played was “When the Gates Swing Open,” Otis’s monumental gospel tribute, the song he sang at so many people’s funerals over the years. At the very moment when it was coming to an end, as the final notes were fading out and Jazzii was wrapping up her taping--at that precise second--she got the call from Denise’s daughter: “Jazzii, come to the hospital. My mother is dying.”
The Queen left us, two years to the day, after Otis Clay. And Otis Clay sang her home.
January 13, 2018: Denise LaSalle Update!
Due to inclement weather, the services (below) have been postponed until Monday, January 15th. The funeral will be held at 11 am in Englewood Baptist Church, 2239 N. Highland Ave., in Jackson, TN.. Visitation 9-11 am.
January 9, 2018:
Saturday, January 13, 2018 at 11:00 AM at Liberty Technology High School Auditorium
3470 Ridgecrest Road Ext.
Visitation will be from 9:00 - 11:00 AM on Saturday morning at Liberty Technology High School Auditorium
Funeral Home in Charge:
Wolfe Brothers Funeral Home
128 South 7th Street
West Memphis, AR
February 1, 2014: NEW ARTIST GUIDE ALERT!
Denise LaSalle is now the #11-ranking Southern Soul artist on Daddy B. Nice's new 21st Century Top 100 Countdown.
Go to Daddy B. Nice's new 21st-Century Artist Guide to Denise LaSalle.
January 23, 2011:
Denise LaSalle's "Older Woman (Looking For A Younger Man)" wins BEST SOUTHERN SOUL COVER SONG OF THE YEAR: See 4th Annual "Daddies," Southern Soul Music Awards
"Older Woman (Looking For A Younger Man)" reprises Pat Cooley's "Older Woman, Younger Man."
Daddy B. Nice wrote: "Older Man (Looking For a Younger Man)" may be Denise LaSalle's best-ever vocal. Her verse-singing has a firm, familiar sweetness leavened with dues-duly-paid wisdom, and her voice-over rant on men and aging is the best series of one-liners on the subject ever recorded."
Bargain-Priced 24 Hour Woman CD
See "Tidbits" below for the latest updates on Denise LaSalle.
To automatically link to Denise LaSalle's charted radio singles, awards, CD's and other references, go to "LaSalle, Denise" in Daddy B. Nice's Comprehensive Index.
Daddy B. Nice's Original Critique:
Denise LaSalle's patch of territory in the community garden of Southern Soul has to do with the steamier side of sex and sexual relationships, and no one has done it better or longer. LaSalle has pretty much written the book on the kind of song that says to the girls, "It's a jungle out there, baby, and the big cats are coming to eat you up."
Those "cats" are the big-shouldered, big-talking, big-striding women who don't necessarily wear the dainty-sized high heels, if they wear heels at all. In fact, they might come to the party competing for your man smashing down a pair of flats like they were beach flip-flops.
When you hear Queen Isabella's "I Hear You Knocking (But You Can't Come In)," Barbara Carr's "Footprints On The Ceiling," or Shirley Brown's "Don't Go Looking For My Man," you're listening to examples of this sub-genre of Southern Soul that owes everything to Denise LaSalle's long career representing the tough-as-nails side of the gentler sex.
A mean-spirited man can hurt a LaSalle heroine, but embarrassing her is out of the question. In "You Should Have Kept It In The Bedroom" (from Still The Queen, Ecko, 2002), Denise tells a female friend that it's basically her own fault Denise stole her man.
"You made it sound so good,
I just had to get me some."
The arrangement is a little muddy, the vocal isn't overly impressive (LaSalle's usual casual style bordering on speech), but the song lingers in your mind long after you've heard it, the way Ann Rabson, LaVern Baker, Bertha Tillman and the early female singers of R&B stick to your R&B soul.
One of LaSalle's most affecting songs is the heartfelt "Five Below Zero (In My Bed)." From the Smokin' In Bed LP (Malaco, 1997), the self-penned, Ray Charles-like anthem captures the vindictiveness (mellowed into a kind of world-weariness) of the oft-spurned woman:
"You say you want to make love to me,
For old time's sake,
But it's five degrees below zero
In my bed."
It's a slow jam, and Denise knows how to hang her voice out there in space--not exactly in a bluesy vibrato, but something very close.
There's a whiff of freshness to her every syllable, and not an ounce of pretension. Old rock and rollers who never got over the demise of The Band and its idiosyncratic country rock hits will find echoes of "The Weight (Put The Weight On Me)" in "Five Below Zero."
In the nineties the indomitable LaSalle gave ground to the prolific and inspired Peggy Scott-Adams in the sweepstakes for the title of the first Lady of Soul. Scott-Adams had the benefit of the songwriter/producer Jimmy Lewis behind her, and their collaboration produced songs of a higher quality than LaSalle's over the same period. However, in the early years of the new century, as Scott-Adams' output has diminished, LaSalle has undertaken a renewed palace coup for Southern Soul's mythical diva throne.
In particular, LaSalle has honed her "bad-mama" chops to near-perfection in dance floor anthems that display her attentiveness to the current scene. The title cut from the CD Still The Queen (Ecko, 2002) is a self-coronation similar to Little Milton's popular "Guitar Man," an ebullient blues that coincidentally also came out in 2002.
And in LaSalle's case the self-mythologizing is equally justified--and more importantly, carried off with just as much ease and authority. Over a bluesy dance hook (the song is written by Ecko Records' John Ward and Raymond Moore, in addition to longtime composer LaSalle) vaguely reminiscent of Aretha Franklin's "Chain Of Fools," LaSalle puts down the young competition like an old hen pecking at pullets.
"All of you soul blue mamas,
That thought the Queen was gone.
Well I'm back, check me out,
Sitting high on my throne."
Even LaSalle's fans, however, could not have foreseen the hit-the-bulls-eye success LaSalle achieved with her self-penned "Snap, Crackle And Pop" (from the CD Wanted, Ecko, 2004).
The song transcends its dance floor attributes by combining a better-than-average rhythm track and arrangement (the chords are from Theo Ealey's "Stand Up In It" by way of Clarence Carter's "Strokin'") with a delightful compendium of all of Southern Soul's sensual groove-masters, from stalwarts Clarence Carter, Marvin Sease, Bobby Rush and The Love Doctor to "those new kids on the block," Theodis Ealey and Dr. "Feelgood" Potts.
The song references "Candylicker," Sease's breakthrough hit from the 80's, and Ealey's "Stand Up In It" with equal glee, reminding fans old and new that, as Denise puts it on "I'm Still The Queen,"
"The Queen is back,
Kicking ass and taking names."
--Daddy B. Nice
About Denise LaSalle (An Appreciation)
Denise LaSalle (born Ora Denise Allen in 1939) was raised in Belzoni, Mississippi. Well-versed in gospel music as a child, she also picked up secular musical influences from early R&B, Grand Ole Opry, and local juke joint music. In her twenties she moved north to Chicago and pursued a songwriting career. A Chess Records executive, Billy "The Kid" Emerson, met LaSalle while she was working as a bar maid, and this gradually led her into recording and performing.
LaSalle's first hit record was 1971's "Trapped By A Thing Called Love" (Westbound Records), which crossed over to the pop charts and went gold. The follow-up, "Now Run Tell That," was a million-seller on the R&B charts. LaSalle moved to ABC Records and recorded three solid albums in the late seventies before ABC was bought out by MCA, and MCA dropped her in the eighties as, nationwide, R&B declined in popularity.
Malaco Records of Jackson, Ms. was just beginning to fill the vacuum, however, with artists such as Z.Z. Hill and Johnnie Taylor, and a LaSalle songwriting assignment for Hill led to a recording career that no one could have anticipated. More than a dozen albums--perhaps the greatest output of any rhythm and blues artist over the same roughly fifteen-year period--marched down the runway of Southern Soul from this oft-overlooked creative dynamo, beginning early on (1985) with LaSalle's signature zydeco track and concert favorite, "Don't Mess With My Tutu."
In recent years the graying LaSalle's recording activity has continued unabated, sustaining her title as Southern Soul's tell-it-like-it-is Everywoman. She has moved to Ecko Records for her latest LP's, reinvigorating her career and re-establishing her credentials as one of Southern Soul's top female draws in the process.
Song's Transcendent Moment
"I'm just a Mississippi woman.
Got that Mississippi mud on my shoes.
I'm just a Mississippi woman.
I want to get back to my roots."
AUGUST, 2005. Denise LaSalle's "The Thrill Is On Again" is one of those copy-cat records (referencing B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone") that your Daddy B. Nice scoffed at on the first few listenings, only to succumb to its undeniable pleasures as time went on.
Remakes of fan-cherished classics are dicey, to say the least, and of any musical project probably the most subjective in terms of fan response.
One of the biggest knocks on rap music is sampling, and yet your Daddy B. Nice has often loved the "jolt" a fresh rendering of an "oldie" represents: for example, Puff Daddy's remake of The Police's "Every Breath You Take" entitled "I'll Be Missing You," which many Sting fans find sacrilegious, but which your Daddy B. Nice prefers due to the marvelous Faith Evans' vocal.
On the other hand, your Daddy B. Nice has never been able to forgive young artist Calvin Richardson's appropriation of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" in his hit, "Keep on Pushin'," nor ever been able to fully warm to young Jackson, Ms. recording artist Dave Mack's bad-acid-trip-like remake of Smokey Robinson's "The Tracks Of My Tears" in his highly-touted 2004 chitlin' circuit hit entitled "13 Days."
LaSalle's "The Thrill Is On Again" is in the same category. It will divide fans, enticing some, repelling others. The more you listen to it, however, the more it beguiles. It's one of Denise LaSalle's best vocals ever.
April 20, 2006. Funny how time changes your responses to a song. Regarding Denise LaSalle's "The Thrill Is On Again" (written about above), it's been ages since I associated it with B. B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone." Now I just crave it--a lot. I love hearing it. (I've even grown "accustomed" to Dave Mack's "13 Days," especially the longer, slower version, which is very good.)
April 28, 2007. Denise LaSalle has teamed up with John Ward and Ecko Records for her upcoming CD, Pay Before You Pump. The label is generating a lot of interest with its promo copy of what will undoubtedly become the first radio single: a new version of the Floyd Hamberlin-written, underground classic, "Mississippi Boy" by Will T. The LaSalle title: "Mississipi Woman." I like it! DBN.
May 1, 2007. "Denise LaSalle debuts at #14 on Billboard Top Blues Albums chart: The new CD by Denise LaSalle Pay Before You Pump entered the Billboard chart on the first week of release." (From Ecko Records)
For those readers happily unfamiliar with the ways of the national commercial music charts--i.e. "Billboard" magazine, the industry bible--this is a signature accomplishment for a Southern Soul recording release. DBN.
June 19, 2007. Denise LaSalle's "Mississippi Woman" has become a bona fide chitlin' circuit hit. And the hype surrounding the release has proven to be justified. The song is aging extremely well, and looks to become one of Denise's best-loved songs in recent memory. DBN.
When I first published the artist guide for Denise LaSalle, my number-one recommended track was "I'm Still The Queen," the B-side "Snap, Crackle And Pop." They were both major juke-joint anthems, full of LaSalle's effortless fronting--"fronting" in the way that wrestlers from WWE, for instance, "front" and hold forth on the microphone before matches--with LaSalle references to having "been all over the world" and "still (being) the queen."
Ironically, LaSalle inserts these very phrases into the final stanza of her blistering, 2007, Ecko-produced "Mississippi Woman." (Bargain-priced Pay Before You Pump CD.)
Readers who have been following the "Tidbits" section of the LaSalle artist guide (below) are well aware of your Daddy B. Nice's fascination with this explosive addition to the LaSalle catalog, not to mention its antecedent: LaSalle's similarly derivative and interpretive rendition of B. B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone."
Truth be told, only the relative newness of the "Mississippi Woman" recording has kept it from taking over the number-one recommended-song spot until now. Ever vigilant for hype, I have always preferred letting a few years pass--letting the sound of a new hit "age"--before annointing it to an exalted position. Those qualms pale, however, in the face of the sheer power of "Mississippi Woman."
On this track (as, to a lesser extent, on the new B-side, "The Thrill Is On Again")( Bargain-priced Wanted CD) LaSalle's effortless, blues-steeped vocal charisma shines in a way that it never did on more middle-of-the-road Southern Soul rockers like "I'm Still The Queen" and "Snap, Crackle And Pop."
As Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Milton discovered before her, the contrast between more pop-based material (i.e. "The Thrill Is Gone" and "Mississippi Boy," even given their Southern Soul roots) provides a platform for even greater artistic triumphs. When LaSalle sings the stanza below, her entire, worthy career telescopes into a conquering stroke of genius.
"I've been all over the world.
I've seen almost everything.
I've seen all kinds of places.
People call me the Queen.
But no matter where I go,
I give them something real.
People all over the world
Need that Mississippi feel."
Readers who want to learn more about the fascinating evolution of the Floyd Hamberlin-written song "Mississippi Boy" (now "LaSalle's "Mississippi Woman") should go to Daddy B. Nice's Artist Guide to Charles Wilson. DBN.
NEW ALBUM ALERT 11/1/10: 24 Hour Woman (Malaco)
Bargain-Priced 24 Hour Woman CD
Comparison-Priced 24 Hour Woman CD
Arranger: Gary Wolfe. Personnel: Stevie J. Johnson, Michael Toles (guitar); Harrison Calloway (acoustic guitar, strings, horns, electric piano, Hammond b-3 organ, Wurlitzer organ); Gary Wolfe (strings,horns, keyboards); Al Wilder (bass guitar); James Robertson (drums); Tonya Youngblood, Vick Allen (background vocals).
Malaco Studios, Jackson, MS; Royal Studio, Memphis, TN.
See Daddy B. Nice's Top Ten "Breaking" Southern Soul Singles for October 2010: "Older Woman (Looking For A Younger Man)"
If You Liked. . . You'll Love
If you loved Patti Labelle's "Lady Marmelade (Voulez-Vous Coucher Avec Moi)," you'll love Denise LaSalle's "Mississippi Woman."
Honorary "B" Side
"The Thrill Is On Again"
CD: Pay Before You Pump
The Thrill Is On Again
I'm Still The Queen
CD: Still The Queen
Snap, Crackle & Pop
Trapped By A Thing Called Love
(Don't Mess With) My Tu-Tu
CD: Love Talkin' (2004)
Five Below Zero
CD: Smokin' In Bed
Older Woman (Looking For A Younger Man)
CD: 24 Hour Woman
|Sample or Buy
24 Hour Woman
You Should Have Kept It In The Bedroom
CD: Still The Queen
CD: 24 Hour Woman
|Sample or Buy
24 Hour Woman
Funky Blues Kinda Mood
CD: This Real Woman
It's Going Down
CD: Pay Before You Pump
Lick It Before You Stick It
CD: This Real Woman
The Love You Threw Away
Too Many Women
CD: 24 Hour Woman
|Sample or Buy
24 Hour Woman