Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Denise LaSalle: The Other Queen

Faraway places with strange sounding names 
Far away over the sea
Those faraway places . . . are calling, calling to me.
They call me a dreamer, well, maybe I am
But I know that I’m burning to see
Those faraway places with the strange sounding names
Calling, calling to me . . .

– Joan Whitney Kramer

The struggle for the spotlight. It can be a perilous challenge in any business, but it’s especially precarious when there actually is a spotlight, but one mostly flooding a few entertainment titans with glory, while those talents mere inches away from its treacherous grasp are left to fend for themselves as best they can at the edges of that global stage dominated by figures such as Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. The Denise LaSalle story, billed as the autobiography of a southern soul superstar, is titled Always the Queen, but it could just as accurately be called Almost the Queen. “Missed it by that much,” as the old Maxwell Smart quip had it.

But though she may not have become a superstar literally, she was definitely a literal legend in the blues and soul music industry, almost as much for her business savvy and label creations as for her deeply raunchy tunes of feminine desire and demand. So you might be forgiven for not recognizing a name that isn’t a household word like Aretha or Tina (who can be designated only by single epithets and still be instantly recognizable personas), even though Denise, in a way that evokes the later soul-revival bluesy goddess Sharon Jones, has exerted more underground and cult influence than the stage names we’re all so familiar with.

In fact, this book attempts, quite successfully, to give LaSalle (1934-2018) what seems to me a creative service similar to my own book on Sharon Jones and her band The Dap-Kings: to provide some posthumous acclaim for a distinctive talent and a bold performing persona. LaSalle passed away the same year as Aretha Franklin, but there were no massive public lamentations or gargantuan funeral celebrations as there were for Franklin, since her parallel career had generated a similar passionate vibe but with far fewer publicly feted tracks. But at her best and in her prime Denise could wail with the best of them and carry a sizzling torch song like no one else.


Her biggest hit was probably “Lost in a Thing Called Love” from 1971, ten years after a similar lament, “A Fool in Love,” was squealed out by a young Tina Turner, and delivered in the soulful nasal twang of the renowned Carla Thomas of Stax Records fame. One of her challenges at the time was that she had arrived on the scene at precisely the same moment as there just happened to be a boatload of great female singers with super-hot bands, all driving headlong in race to the top of the charts. It was often easy for great talents such as LaSalle, and a decade later Jones, to get a just little bit lost in the shuffle. The struggle for that spotlight – it’s not only dog eat dog, it’s usually diva eat diva.

One of LaSalle’s favourite songs was “Faraway Places,” a simple but poignant tune eventually recorded by The Embers and many others, including her. She uses it as the epigram to open her memoir and set its fast-paced and dreamy tone. She shares her earliest memories of singing, which, like those of many Southern gospel music enthusiasts, was a combination of singing in church and singing while working in the fields, as a way to escape from the tedium of one and immerse herself in the hopes of the other.

There was apparently never a time when Denise was not singing, though at the time everyone was singing, in one way or another, since it was one of the key means of self-expression and emotional balancing engaged in by so many figures in her Southern Baptist culture. It started for her in the countryside, where she chimed away on the plantation her family worked and continued after her folks moved to Belzoni, Mississippi, a small urban town where she went along with her family when they hired themselves out during harvest time: “I’d trudge down the rows lugging my cotton sack, stooped over, raising my voice in song, sweating and toiling under the hot Delta sun.”

In her formative years, and also like several other great soul and blues singers in her situation – including the ones who eventually somewhat eclipsed her in the rush to that spotlight – she sang whatever was being played on the little family radio. A lot of it, surprisingly perhaps, was country music, Grand Ole Opry, a source not known for its African American content but still a source for some sublime voices to aspire to emulate. On weekends, their little radio picked up WLAC from Nashville, where John R. and Hoss Allen used to play blues and R&B sounds, which collided in her mind with the sacred music of the gospel vibe they all worshipped to on Sundays.

That collision was, of course, precisely the core source of all the music that later became known as soul, and then later as funk – the origins of which were the intersection of the sacred and profane, scripture and the secular, the blind date between gospel, blues, and jazz that would eventually give birth to the astonishing hybrid forms of a genius such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe, with her early use of an intensely twanging electric guitar long predating both Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry, was the progenitor of every bridge between the church and the tavern, and the prophetic visionary who actually invented rock and roll. 

Westbound Records, 1972.

LaSalle recounts how she first realized it was possible to make something of a living using her voice, a bold way out of the fields, while singing that song “Faraway Places,” the lyrics of which had already captured her imagination and ignited a desire to travel and see the world:

I’m sure I must have heard it on the radio, probably at home. To me, the words sounded like a dream. All of a sudden, a white woman stepped off her porch. Hey singer, come here, she said. What’s that you’re singing? Sing it for me! And I sang it for her, and she gave me fifty cents. That was the first time I ever got paid for singing, and that was the first song I got paid for.

From that point on, she used to dream of singing while standing on a stage, which she described as an ocean in front of her, but when she looked out at the water, it had faces floating in it: “I didn’t have knowledge of what auditoriums or audiences looked like. There was no big auditorium then for us. I didn’t see walls, no walls, just an ocean, and it was all people.” Her memoir, written with the help of David Whiteis, is quite literally the story of how one person’s dreams can come true, though of course its subtext is also that old familiar one: the struggle for the spotlight. In a few previous articles on Critics At Large I charted the trajectory of the evolution of musical styles stemming from Tharpe and her own dream of rocking and rolling the gospel, especially in “Coal Into Diamond: The Inspiring Story of Gospel Funk,” “Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings” and “Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner.”

LaSalle is part of that same tidal wave of musical styles merging into a bluesy soul stew, of course, but unlike with those other musical goddesses, Aretha and Tina, fewer people would be conversant with the hard-working and devoted Denise. Which is why this memoir is so much needed: to provide a context, culturally, socially, politically and artistically speaking, in which the struggle for fame can be most effectively savored.

Whiteis is perhaps ideally suited to helping this lady tell her story of both strife and success. A journalist, author and educator based in Chicago, he’s also the author of Blues Legacy: Tradition and Innovation in Chicago Blues, and also Southern Soul-Blues, precisely the genre mix that Denise exemplified and at which she excelled so superbly. LaSalle is notable for her singing, of course, but is also a songwriter and a very canny businesswoman, having started a string of independent record labels to launch stars who shared her vibe. Her best-known songs include, in addition to “Trapped in a Thing Called Love” and “Doin’ it Right,” several modern-day soul-blues standards such as “A Lady in the Street” and “Someone Else is Steppin’ In.” She entered the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame in 2015. 

Epic Records, 1985.

Music journalist Jimmy McDonough, author of Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green, is accurately complimentary about LaSalle’s pivotal role in the evolution of female feminist torch singers all the way up to Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe and Nicki Manaj. But the truly heavy-duty Betty Mabry Davis, famous for “Nasty Gal,” also owed her a debt of gratitude. As McDonough put it, “Without the pioneering efforts of Denise LaSalle we probably wouldn’t have many of the rap queens/divas we have today.” And remember, she was busy doing her thing at a time almost a full decade before such a genre as rap even existed.

She tells her story in a no-holds-barred, down-to-earth style, similar to that of her often raunchy songs. And it’s totally true that she went from picking cotton to singing gold:

By the time I was ten years old, I could pick a hundred and some pounds of cotton. One day, I’ll never forget, my daddy talked me into picking two hundred pounds. “First one of ya’ll picks two hundred pounds, you got fifty cents.” It was hard back-breaking work, and even though I still considered myself a happy child, I was beginning to learn some things about life, and about myself, that would soon make me realize that I couldn’t stay in that place and be that person for long. I guess you could say my dreams were calling me.

I guess you could also say that that young girl looked at what two hundred pounds of cotton looked like and felt like, and compared that to the fifty cents that white lady on her porch paid her for serenading her with a single song. No contest, really. So though you may not know her name, if you enjoy the real thing when it comes to raw blues and soul, I invite you to look into and listen to her music. Whiteis expressed it best in his heartfelt posthumous tribute to a great lady and a great star, regardless of the fact that the centre-stage spotlight eluded her: “When Denise LaSalle passed away on January 8, 2018, the music world lost a beloved life-affirming presence, a woman who had left her imprint on musical generations ranging from mainstream 60’s era R and B through the modernist hybrid known as soul-blues and southern soul. Hers was a voice of contemporary immediacy, irrespective of decade or style.”

She was indeed something special, and definitely deserves to be more listened to and appreciated. Hopefully this book will contribute to that end. In the crowded lineage of blues, soul and funk, she is the invisible thread tying together the vibes of Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and Sharon Jones. Once Koko Taylor passed away, the mantle of Queen of the Blues seemed to naturally descend onto her shoulders. Give a listen to her bawdy tune “Married, But Not to Each Other” and you’ll get a good idea of how boldly declaimed her charm could be.

Robert Christgau summed it up quite efficiently in his Record Guide to the Seventies Era, in which he lauded her 1972 album Trapped in a Thing Called Love: “LaSalle seems to be a songwriter first and a singer second, which may be what there’s a certain professional anonymity about her unusual moods. But the voice is there – sensual, warm, even wise – and ideal for her producer Willie Mitchell’s meditative style of Memphis funk. And because she’s a very good songwriter, just about every one of her tracks offers up its pleasures to us.”

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020. 

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