Remembering the life and legacy of Denise LaSalle

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It has been almost a year since the world lost its most recent Queen of the Blues. Since the death of Koko Taylor, Denise LaSalle had worn the title. A sample of just part of her catalog illustrates why LaSalle has the place she does in blues and music history. Her style might make some people think of a female Z.Z. Hill. While accurate in some respects, the comparison should not overshadow what LaSalle accomplished.

LaSalle died in January 2018 after complications from a fall and the amputation of a leg. While not everyone knew who she was, for those who had heard her voice, her loss is not insignificant.

Denise LaSalle and the 1980s and 1990s blues scenes

For a genre that is the basis for so many other popular genres, the blues has sometimes been overlooked after the 1960s or so. But like other genres that have fallen out of fashion, the blues never went away. Instead, small clubs throughout the lower Midwest and South were often packed when they booked blues acts who were known to diehard fans in small cities across the US. Which isn’t to say that performers like LaSalle, Taylor and Hill never played huge venues. But the fervor for the performers and their updated versions of the blues never seemed to waver among certain audiences.

While the popularity of blues legends from the 1920s through 1940s surged when their songs were used or in some ways adapted by rock bands in the 1960s and 1970s, the next wave of blues performers found their fans by virtue of the blues’ legacy, people who knew what the blues had to offer listeners and who wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything.

In cities like Fort Wayne, Indiana, black music could only be found on cable radio for at least a decade. In a radio programming format that can best be described as modified block, listeners could get a heavy dose of the blues on Saturday mornings. For approximately three or four hours, blues fans could hear their favorite blues singers. The songs were largely by relatively new blues acts. Invariably, from 1986 on the blues show closed almost invariably with Billy Peek’s “Can A White Boy Play the Blues?”

It was in this era of screaming guitar and heavy backbeat blues that LaSalle would come to prominence in. A performer since the late 1960s, by the time LaSalle found her way to some radio airwaves in the US, she was a seasoned performer. She (along with others) proved that a woman could indeed sing the blues. In particular, LaSalle’s take on certain songs like “Down Home Blues” provided a different perspective for the song’s narrative. This is interesting when listeners consider they have only been hearing the male perspective.

Denise LaSalle’s life and music

LaSalle was born in Leflore County, Mississippi. Her parents were sharecroppers and she worked at the same for a while. Her first forays into singing came from church-based opportunities. Toward the end of her life, she would return to Gospel music.

According to LaSalle’s biography, a turning point came when she went to live with an older brother in Chicago in the early 1960s. A young adult at that point, LaSalle had sessions with r&b musicians and was also influenced by country music and the blues. Her first recording contract was from Chess Records in 1967. She had a minor hit shortly after with a single called “A Love Reputation.”

By 1971, LaSalle had recorded a song that continues to be part of her legacy and “best of” discography. “Trapped By a Thing Called Love” went to No. 1 on the US r&b chart, and it went to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.

LaSalle’s series and of hits and certified gold records continued to multiply. Then, came 1983’s “Lady In the Street” a song that appealed to r&b fans, blues fans, and soul music fans. LaSalle’s conversational style and frank word choice made her seem less a “star” and more like a woman with which her audience could relate.

Her version of “Down Home Blues” is often paired with “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In,” two songs made popular by Z.Z. Hill. In particular her version of “Down Home Blues” provides the woman’s perspective. By listening to LaSalle’s version, audiences are privy to what has happened to the woman who has stopped by after a trying day. In the male-sung version, audiences hear only that a woman friend has stopped by and all she wants is a drink and to hear “those down home blues.”

LaSalle and those of her generation of blues continued the tradition of keeping the blues the music of the people. She succeeded in sounding like an everyday woman with the same concerns as her audience. That she did that while succeeding in a male-dominated genre only adds to LaSalle’s legacy.

In 2011, LaSalle was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

 

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