Denise LaSalle earned her crown in southern soul—and wears it in the blues | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Denise LaSalle earned her crown in southern soul—and wears it in the blues

In a career spanning 50 years, the Mississippi native has proved herself a riveting performer and chart-topping songwriter.

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Denise LaSalle - ROGELIO V. SOLIS/AP PHOTO
  • Rogelio V. Solis/AP Photo
  • Denise LaSalle

Denise LaSalle's specialty is still telling it like it is. The veteran blues singer usually aims her earthy lyrics and sassy onstage patter straight at the women in the audience—and when it comes to talking about the kind of romantic entanglements she knows those women deal with, she doesn't pull any punches.

LaSalle burned up the 70s R&B charts with steamy southern soul, then shifted to blues in 1982 after signing with Malaco Records from Jackson, Mississippi. Not bad, especially considering music wasn't even her first choice—she once yearned to be a fiction writer.

"I sent out story after story, and I got up one morning and I had eight manuscripts laying there in front of my mailbox. And I was so hurt," LaSalle says. "So I said, 'I'll just write some poems.'" And soon she would set them to music.

Born Ora Denise Allen in 1939 in Leflore County, Mississippi, LaSalle listened to gospel and country prior to migrating to Chicago in her teens. "I made up my mind that I was leaving Mississippi if it's the last thing I do," she says. In Chicago she took the name "LaSalle" from a French character she saw in a newspaper cartoon. She spent a few years with gospel group the Sacred Five before meeting R&B singer Billy "the Kid" Emerson while she worked as a barmaid at a lounge on 51st and Calumet. It was the tragic day in November 1963 that President Kennedy was assassinated.

Emerson, who'd written and recorded "Red Hot" for Sun Records in 1955, was crucial to launching LaSalle as a performer. "He got me started," she says. Emerson helped land her a contract with Chess Records, but nothing came of it at first—she ended up releasing her 1967 debut single, "A Love Reputation," through his Tarpon imprint. (It was cowritten by local bluesman Lee Baker Jr.—LaSalle takes credit for renaming him Lonnie Brooks.) Chess picked up the single for national distribution, and she cut two encores for the label.

In 1969 LaSalle and her husband at the time, Bill Jones, launched the Crajon label, and along with its subsidiaries it issued not only her own output but also hits by the Sequins and Bill Coday. LaSalle's "Hung Up, Strung Out" caught the attention of Westbound Records in 1970, and the company brought her aboard. Memphis would be her new base of operations, and she used the studio run by Willie Mitchell—the bandleader who produced Al Green for Hi Records.

"We found someone who could really understand what I was doing," says LaSalle. "If I hummed the song, they'd play it. We started going to what they call 'head arrangements.' We'd work it up right in the studio and cut it, and come out with a hit record." The formula worked to perfection on the charming LaSalle original "Trapped by a Thing Called Love," which topped the Billboard R&B chart in fall 1971.

LaSalle never equaled that song's success, but from then on her singles consistently charted. The inspiration for her '72 hit "Now Run and Tell That" sprang from the sign-off phrase used by the news director at WVON. "Roy Wood used to do his commentary, and talk about what black people were going to do," she says. "He would say, 'Now run and tell that!'" Her next hit, "A Man Size Job," hinted at the saucy story lines she would later make her calling card.

When Westbound began to falter, LaSalle moved to ABC, hitting in 1977 with "Love Me Right." But times were changing. Disco was hot—and though she briefly tried her hand at the new thing, she couldn't make it work. "I was so glad when it was over, because it just wasn't my bag," she says. With encouragement from her new husband, disc jockey James Wolfe, LaSalle recast herself as a blues singer at Malaco. Just prior to her own successes there, she wrote the instant standard "Someone Else Is Steppin' In" for Z.Z. Hill. "I was crazy about his 'Down Home Blues,'" she says. "When he asked me to do one, I did 'Steppin' In' for him, and it's a classic!"

Breaking the glass ceiling seems to have given LaSalle little trouble. "There was always somebody there in my path that was waiting to help me," she says. "I just appreciate that."  v

Denise LaSalle performs Sunday, June 11, at 4 PM on the Mississippi Juke Joint stage.

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