All Photos: Alan Mercer
Denise LaSalle is America’s reigning "Queen of the Blues". Blues fans, musicians, music experts and critics internationally recognize this royal and honorary title Queen of the Blues. The legendary LaSalle has a distinguished career of nearly 50 years as a vocalist, singer, live-performer, songwriter, entrepreneur, producer and originator of the Blues and R&B genre. She is a singer, songwriter, and record producer who has a staggering output of 35 albums placing her among the most prolific female artists living. In the Blues tradition, the most senior and talented artist in both genders is accorded the title of King and Queen, and since 2009 following the death of Koko Taylor, Denise LaSalle has been recognized as the uncontested "Queen of the Blues".
Denise, a native Mississippian, has strong Delta roots and her spoken tribute at B.B. King’s funeral was an unexpected surprise to millions of Blues fans globally. She was born and raised in Belzoni in Leflore County just forty miles south of Indianola where her late friend B.B. King was born and buried.
Denise would sit in with R&B musicians and wrote songs, influenced by country music as well as the blues, before winning a recording contract with Chess Records in 1967. Her first single, "A Love Reputation" was a modest regional hit. She established an independent production company, Crajon, with her then husband Bill Jones. Her song "Trapped By A Thing Called Love" 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. The RIAA gold disc award was made on November 30, 1971 for a million sales.
She also wrote successful follow-ups, "Now Run And Tell That" and "Man Sized Job" which made #3 and #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 Willie Mitchell, using the cream of southern session players. She continued to have hits on Westbound and then on ABC Records through the mid-1970s, including "Love Me Right." She continued to produce and perform live. Her co-penned song, "Married, But Not to Each Other" was included in the 1979 ‘The Best of Barbara Mandrell.’
In the early 1980s, she signed as a singer and songwriter with Malaco Records, for whom she released a string of critically acclaimed albums over more than 20 years, starting with ‘Lady in the Street’ and ‘Right Place, Right Time.’ Both albums became major successes among soul blues, R&B and soul fans and on urban radio stations. 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.
After taking a brief break from the road to nurse husband James Wolfe back to health, Denise LaSalle has resumed performing and recording, and made a duet with Soul Bluesman Bigg Robb titled “Blues and Barbeque”. The Blues duo completed a music video on May 29th, 2015.
The passing of B.B. King has inspired LaSalle to prioritize Blues Education for younger generations, and is reviving her 501 c 3 National Association for the Preservation of Blues (N.A.P.O.B.) headquartered in Jackson, Tennessee. NAPOB aims to create an innovative and interdisciplinary Blues Education program including music training, technology, professional development targeted at youth with alternative programs for adult learners.
The Queen of the Blues is recording on a new album “Cougars on the Loose”, and is reviewing several documentary and collaborative recording projects including Blues and Country Music.
Denise LaSalle is a paragon among the last surviving legendary and pioneering Blues singers, songwriters and musicians that transformed a regional sounding into an internationally loved and respected genre that represents one of a few the only genuine American art forms.
In 2009, Blues critics and enthusiasts crowned Denise LaSalle Queen of the Blues. In 2011, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. On Saturday, June 6th, 2015, LaSalle was inducted into the Mississippi Blues Hall of Fame.
I took these shots at Poor David's Pub in Dallas, Texas at the KNON Benefit Concert.
AM: Denise, you are an amazing songwriter. You are prolific and just brilliant. Where is this coming from?
DL: I don’t know, somewhere in the back of my mind.
AM: Are you always writing?
DL: That’s how I got started in this business, as a songwriter. I’ve been a poet since I was a little girl in school.
AM: So this led to songwriting?
DL: Yes, usually when the words come to me in rhyme, they come with a melody. The minute I put the words down on paper I know exactly how the melody will sound.
AM: I love the themes in your music. You are so earthy and real. Has this always been the case?
DL: Yes, that’s all I know to write about, what is real life.
AM: You write a lot about relationships.
DL: Yes, they are not always about my relationships. I can be talking to a friend of mine and they will tell me something that happened to them and that rhyme will get in my head and when that rhyme comes to my mind with the melody, I have to think about what would make me say this and what would make me feel this way. That’s how I get the scenario.
AM: Your lyrics are all so clever and often humorous. When you wrote “married, But Not To Each Other” did you ever think it would be a hit for somebody else?
DL: No and it was a surprise especially because of who it was. I never dreamed a Country girl like Barbara Mandrell could take that song and make it a hit. That’s a perfect example of another lady’s story. A friend of mine was cheating on her husband and she told me about it. She came up with the title and then I put my own words to it.
AM: Are you still writing?
DL: Yes, I still write. People are always coming up to me with song titles. I just take them and work with them.
AM: You come off as a very strong woman in all your songs. I especially love ‘EEE TEE.’ How did that one come about?
DL: I had just seen the movie ‘E.T.’ and I was talking with my friends about an ugly man being good to you or a fine thing who is no good. I just put it together that I would rather have a man who looks like E.T. and be good to me than have a fine man who would abuse me.
AM: Have you been able to stay strong in real life and avoid some of the pitfalls of show business?
DL: I think I have. I think I’ve avoided quite a few, although I’ve been in some problems.
AM: How did you avoid them?
DL: I believe in being honest so I always let people know what will be and won’t be and what I’ll take and what I won’t take.
AM: What do young girls ask you the most?
DL: There is so much more to get into today. It’s not like it used to be with just a few things to do. I just always tell them to be careful and look before you leap.