Denise LaSalle, Soul-Blues Belter (1939-2018): An Appreciation

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From the outset, Denise LaSalle had both hands firmly around the neck of some rascal. Whether belting in the genres of blues, R&B, gospel, even a funky blues-hip hop hybrid, no-goods were put on notice: You don’t mess with Denise.

That flat-footed, go-hither stance – call her a modern-day Bessie Smith – was no copped attitude. LaSalle was one of the first African-American women to produce her own records. She wrote nearly every cut on her own sessions, too. She was as tough as she was prolific.

LaSalle – born in 1939 at Belzoni, Miss., also birthplace of Muddy Water sideman Pinetop Perkins – has died at the age of 78, after years of health issues. Her passing, apparently due to complications from a recent surgery, has been reported by several outlets.

She first performed in local gospel groups around LeFlore County, but famously lived across from a juke joint. LaSalle quickly turned to talent contests and, perhaps inevitably, to the blues – then to Chicago. The impetus to leave was existential, she later admitted.

“All them folks killing all the black folks,” LaSalle said in a 2017 interview with Blues Blast. “I wanted to get out of there, and I made up my mind that I’m leaving Mississippi if it’s the last thing I do. I didn’t care who I had to hurt, or how much my mom and dad protested. I would get out of there: ‘I can’t live in this place, because I would be dead next summer. I’m not taking this stuff.’ I got out.”

Her first record, A Love Reputation on Tarpon, was later leased to the legendary Chess label. The album was produced by Billy “The Kid” Emerson, who’d discovered Denise LaSalle working as a barmaid at the Windy City’s Mixer’s Lounge. She started her own short-lived label then, in 1971, hit with the million-selling “Trapped By a Thing Called Love.” Followups “Now Run and Tell That” and “Man Sized Job” were Top 10 recordings later in the decade; she co-wrote “Married, But Not to Each Other,” recorded in 1979 by Barbara Mandrell.

Discussing the politics of love always seemed like second nature. “It’s easy to get inspired to write sexy songs,” LaSalle told the Times-Picayune in 2014. “Sex is a part of life. Without sex, there would be no me or you! Let’s face it. It’s not necessarily dirty, it’s what you make it. You can say it in a dirty way, or you can say it in a clean way. It’s still facts.”

The rest might have been history, if she hadn’t faltered in the late 1970s as disco and then divorce overtook Denise LaSalle. She was dropped by ABC Records after three albums. Undeterred, she simply started over in Jackson, Tenn., performing at a club she co-owned with her next husband. By the 1980s, the Mississippi-based soul blues label Malaco had called.

Then, the rest really was history: An early association with modern blues hitmaker Z.Z. Hill – he singlehandedly put the then-forgotten genre back on the radio in the early 1980s – relaunched her career. LaSalle covered Hill’s ubiquitous “Down Home Blues,” but in her own uniquely salacious way, and Hill had a hit with her “Someone Else is Steppin’ In.” She recorded a string of sizzling sides for Malaco, including 1984’s Right Place, Right Time and 1997’s Smokin’ in Bed.

We love Denise LaSalle for each of those titanic grooves, and also because after listening intently to her records, we’re not certain that she couldn’t have kicked our ass. There’s a reason she took over the mantel of Queen of the Blues after Koko Taylor’s death in 2009.

“I think I grew up a little sassy,” she once told Blue Blast. “I got a lot of whippings for being sassy when I was a girl. I guess it kind of remains. When I got old enough to be on my own, when I could do without getting Mama’s whippings, I think I just let my hair down and did it.”

Oh, and that hybrid quip was not hyperbole: LaSalle’s “My Tu-Tu” is called the first blues-rap hit. Her 1992 Malaco LP Love Me Right included “Another One Bites the Dust,” which lifted the chorus from the rock group Queen’s familiar tune.

Honored with a plaque on the Mississippi Blues Trail, Denise LaSalle later released a series of terrific gospel-crossover recordings, including 2000’s This Real Woman and 2001’s There’s No Separation, both on on Ordena Records, but always returned to tough-minded blues sides like 2007’s Pay Before You Pump. Later, LaSalle worked to open a blues academy in her hometown of Jackson, with plans to give free lessons to children in order to sustain her beloved music.

She will be missed.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

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Jimmy Nelson
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