Blues & Soul – The Great Denise LaSalle
I first discovered Denise LaSalle’s amazing talent back in the late 70’s and sang a number of her songs in my bands along the way, in fact, I still, to this day, do a few favorites in the Shaun Murphy Band!
She was just one of the ‘gutsiest’ lady singers (lol, is that even a word?) that I’d ever heard, outside of Millie Jackson, of course! I loved her singing and especially the slant that her prolific writing said to me. It really struck a chord with all things in today’s world.
Of course, there was her, less than serious strains she did tunes like the ever-popular, ‘Don’t Mess With My Toot-Toot, and Your Husband Is Cheating On Us’…..
Denise was born near Sidon, Mississippi, as the youngest of eight children, to Nathaniel A. Allen Sr. and Nancy Cooper. Her family worked as sharecroppers, and she had to pick cotton and take up other paid labor to support her family.
She was raised in Belzoni from age seven and sang in church choirs for local gospel groups around Leflore County. At age 13, she moved to Chicago to live with her oldest brother. Which is where she stayed and grew up, later she started sitting in with R&B musicians and wrote songs, influenced by country music as well as the blues.
Around 1963, while she was working as a barmaid at the Mix’s Lounge, she met Billy “The Kid” Emerson, who at that time was working for Chess Records. This resulted in a one-year recording contract with Chess Records; however, sadly, no recording sessions were done. Later on, Emerson started his own label, ‘Tarpon’, and in 1967 he recorded LaSalle on his label. The single, “A Love Reputation”, was a modest regional hit, but nowhere where she would end up!!!
Her first marriage was to Bill Jones in 1969; they divorced in 1974. Both of them collaborated in producing records, and they established an independent production company, ‘Crajon Records’. Her song “Trapped By a Thing Called Love” (1971) was released on Detroit-based Westbound Records. This reached #1 on the national R&B chart and #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart! The song ranked at #85 on the 1971 year-end chart. A RIAA gold disc award was made on November 30, 1971, for a million sales.
In 1977, she married James E. “Super Wolfe” Wolfe Jr. He was a disc jockey, and he ran several radio stations, and later, he finally became a preacher, they had two children together.
Reviewing her 1972 debut album of the same name, Robert Christgau wrote in ‘Christgau’s Record Guide’: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981): “LaSalle seems to be a songwriter first and a singer second, which may be why there’s certain professional anonymity about her unusual moods. But the voice is there—sensual, warm, even wise, ideal for [producer] Willie Mitchell’s meditative Memphis funk. And because she’s a pretty good songwriter, just about every one of these twelve tracks offers its professional pleasures.” A rather odd complimentary review indeed…..
I have to say that I think she was under-rated on her songwriting….really putting a spell on the listener, the way she understood how to express her subjects’ inner feelings. She captured just what you might be going through in song…..
She also wrote successful follow-ups, “Now Run and Tell That”, (which this old Soul Train video I have here.) and “Man Sized Job”, which made #3 and number 4 in the R&B Top Ten and also charted in the Hot 100. Her early hits were recorded at the Hi recording studios in Memphis, operated by Mitchell, using the best southern session players. She continued to have hits and made three albums on the Westbound label.
Now Run And Tell That
In 1976 she moved to Jackson, Tennessee, and signed a contract with ‘ABC Records’. On ABC she had another hit, “Love Me Right” (#10 R&B, #80 pop). ABC was taken over by MCA, and she made three albums for MCA. She also continued to perform live and to produce. Her co-penned song “Married, But Not to Each Other” was included on the 1979 compilation album ‘The Best of Barbara Mandrell’.
In 1982 she signed as a songwriter for the Malaco label, where she wrote songs for Z.Z. Hill among others. (I do that song to this day: Someone else Is Steppi’ In.) She was then persuaded to also record herself; this resulted in the album “Lady In The Street” in 1983. She continued to record for Malaco for 15 years, and released a string of critically acclaimed albums, starting with ‘Lady in the Street’ (1983) and ‘Right Place, Right Time’ (1984). Her R&B, soul blues, and soul songs were played on urban radio stations in southern states.
In 1985, she enjoyed her only recognition in the UK Singles Chart when her cover version of Rockin’ Sidney’s “My Toot Toot” reached #6.
She appeared at the 1984 and 1993 versions of the Long Beach Blues Festival. In 1993, she also performed at the San Francisco Blues Festival. Her album, ‘Smokin’ In Bed’ (1997), which sold well.
She had in interviews, stated that during the Westbound and ABC/MCA years she was free to record any song she liked, a feat in itself…..but at Malaco she was more limited. Malaco was a blues label, and wanted her to record mainly ‘hard blues’.
After the Malaco years, she started her own label ‘Ordena’, and released a few albums, including ‘God’s Got My Back‘ which is a gospel album, and ‘This Real Woman’ (2-CD set) which is a mixture of everything, it includes country, R&B, Blues, and Pop tunes.
In 2002, she was again recording for a new label, this time for ‘Ecko Records’, a small Memphis-based soul-blues label, the first album was ‘Still the Queen’.
In 2009, she was honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail in Belzoni.
After more than a decade away, she returned to Malaco to release an album in 2010, titled ‘24 Hour Woman’.
In 2011, she was inducted into the ‘Blues Hall of Fame’. One wonders, with all her discography to date why was she passed over for so long?
In 2013 and 2014, she was nominated for a ‘Blues Music Award’ in the ‘Soul Blues Female Artist’ category.
Denise lived with her husband, James E. Wolfe, in Jackson, where she opened a restaurant called ‘Blues Legend Café’. The restaurant was located at 436 E. Main Street, but, sadly, has since closed.
After suffering from heart problems, and complications from a fall having resulted in her right leg being amputated in October 2017, LaSalle died surrounded by her family, at the age of 83, on January 8, 2018.
Her legacy lives on to this day!!!!!