Songwriter, recording star, producer, label owner—there’s not much in the music industry that Denise LaSalle hasn’t done and done well over the last half century. After 15 years as a soul star, LaSalle switched to blues in 1982. Be forewarned that she’s not afraid of telling it like it is on mic; her live shows aren’t for the kiddies.
“Even before I started doing it on record, I was naughty but nice in person,” says LaSalle. “It comes naturally. Because that’s the way life is.” LaSalle left little doubt as to her inclinations at Malaco Records during the ‘80s and ‘90s, her material including “Smokin’ In Bed,” “Long Dong Silver,” and an “X-rated” version of labelmate Z.Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues.” “I think I grew up a little sassy,” she adds. “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.”
It was rare for a female recording artist to launch her own label the way LaSalle did in 1969 when she and then-husband Bill Jones established Crajon Records (for Craig, Denise’s surname prior to her betrothal, and Jones). But if Denise encountered static from the male-dominated industry, she’s not telling. “Men seemed to be having just as hard a time as women,” says LaSalle. “It looked like God was just with me, and it just happened for me. I didn’t look for something to happen. There was always somebody there in my path that was waiting to help me.”
LaSalle was born in Leflore County, Mississippi, her family relocating to Belzoni when she was seven. Attending school and picking cotton took up quite a bit of the girl’s time. So did listening to blues deejay John Richbourg on WLAC-AM out of Nashville. That wasn’t the only music she loved. “Country music was an influence all of my life,” Denise says. “I grew up in Mississippi. That’s what we listened to—the Grand Ole Opry and all that country stuff on Mississippi radio.” The earthy storylines inherent to country music appealed to Denise. “That’s what I liked about it. That’s pretty much the same stories we tell as blues singers. We talk about real life stuff. Real life. We ain’t making up no junk. We’re singing about what happens between a man and a woman.”
At 13, Denise exited Mississippi for Chicago. What convinced her to leave home so young? “All them folks killing all the black folks,” says LaSalle. “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.”
Writing was an early passion of Denise’s. “I actually wanted to be a novelist. I had countless True Confessions magazines and novels and stuff like that. Growing up, I just read them all. I just loved them. And I made up my mind I wanted to be a story writer. So I started writing stories,” she said. “One was published in (Tan Magazine), and I thought I really had it made. I went out then and bought a typewriter and everything, and set up my office. 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. I said, ‘Nobody will publish another story!’ They said it was repetitious, and blah-blah-blah. So I said, ‘I’ll just write some poems.’ And I started writing poems.” The poems often came attached to a melody: “I got a tape recorder and started taping them.”
Aretha Franklin was one of LaSalle’s primary vocal influences, along with Dinah Washington. Just like Aretha, her earliest musical exploits were in church. “I sang with a gospel group, the Sacred Five, in Chicago for about three or four years before I had the opportunity to be a rhythm and blues singer,” she says.
Denise’s first break came when veteran pianist Billy “The Kid” Emerson, whose sizable discography included gritty blues for Sun Records in Memphis (including his original 1955 version of “Red Hot”) and more R&B-oriented fare for Vee-Jay and Chess after he settled in Chicago, dropped by Mix’s Lounge at 51st and Calumet on the South Side, where LaSalle was working as a barmaid. It happened to be a very auspicious day in November of 1963.
“The day President Kennedy got killed,” she remembers. “I’ll never forget when I met (Billy). Everybody was coming in the lounge where I was working to see the story of the murder on TV. And everybody in the place remembered that he was an artist, and they wanted me to speak to him because I think they had been kind of laughing at me a little bit, being around there writing songs and singing, and didn’t know nobody. I think they had been laughing at me. But they introduced me to him. I don’t know what they thought he was going to say, but he was impressed. And they were I think shocked that he was impressed. When they heard the fact that I had signed with Chess Records, of course everybody got really into it then. They just didn’t know what to think of that.”
Billy the Kid proved a nurturing mentor. “He got me started,” says LaSalle. “The man taught me the ropes of the business. He taught me so much, so many things that I’ve never forgotten. He staged all my stage presence and personality. He developed me as an entertainer. He said the best thing that I could do was to make personal contact with my audience. Use my eyes, my expressions, my hands, and to look directly into my audiences’ eyes. Seize on their emotions, and go from there. Use it to my advantage. Those things I never forgot. He also taught me, even if you have to sometimes reach down and get that gut sound, and sound up and do a song, always come out of it with a smile. Always remember to smile at your audience and make them a part of a show.
“Nothing came of the contract with Chess, but Billy did take me out and around the clubs, and introduce me to the musicians and encourage me to sing and join in with the jam sessions. Soon I was getting offers to be vocalist for bands, and things began to happen.”
Denise cut her soulful 1967 debut single “A Love Reputation” for Emerson’s own Tarpon label (Billy hailed from Tarpon Springs, Florida). “I had a part in writing it, but I didn’t get any credit for it, because the song was written by a young man named Lee Baker,” says LaSalle, who says she had something to do with renaming Baker, who relocated to Chicago a few years after registering a 1957 Gulf Coast hit with a swamp-laden “Family Rules (Angel Child)” as Guitar Jr. for Eddie Shuler’s Lake Charles, Louisiana-based Goldband Records. “I named him Lonnie Brooks,” says LaSalle. “I named him, working with Billy Emerson. We came up with the initials of his name. And I said, ‘Why not call him Lonnie Brooks?’
“Well, he wrote the song, and Billy Emerson and I helped to rewrite it. Because when we got it from him, it was like a book, it was so long and all. So we kind of edited it, and reworded some of the words and turned it into what it was. So then he got concerned about how many writers, and was he going to get any money if there was too many writers on the song. So I said, ‘Well, I don’t want any part of the writer’s on this. I just want to straighten the song out and make it sound like it should.’ So I didn’t get any credit for writing it, but I did help it.”
The single came out under the handle of Denise LaSalle (her maiden name was Allen). “I gave myself the name. My first name was Ora. My middle name was Denise. And I wanted to use Denise, because I never did like Ora. I wanted a French name to go with it, so I put LaSalle with it,” she says. “Everybody thinks it’s because of LaSalle Street in Chicago. But no, it was a cartoon in the newspaper where a girl from France had come over to the United States. Her name was Buffy LaSalle. And I chose that name from that.” Chess Records, which had failed her a few years earlier, picked up the single nationally. “When ‘A Love Reputation’ got real big in certain areas, they jumped on it,” she says. LaSalle and producer Emerson collaborated on her ‘68 Chess encore “Private Property,” but “Count Down (And Fly Me To The Moon),” her last Chess offering later that year, was a self-penned effort that she produced with then-spouse Jones.
The couple premiered their Crajon label in 1969 with Denise’s self-penned “Heartbreak Of The Year,” but the logo was no mere vanity project. Crajon brought soul singer Bill Coday aboard, and he scored a national hit in ‘71 with “Get Your Lie Straight,” picked up nationally by Galaxy Records. Their resident girl group, the Sequins, had scored the year before with “Hey Romeo” on Crajon’s Gold Star subsidiary (LaSalle wrote both hits). Another of their imprints, Parka Records, pressed up Denise’s “Hung Up, Strung Out” in 1970. It made enough regional noise that Armen Boladian’s Detroit-based Westbound Records acquired it for wider consumption.
Unlike her previous Chicago-cut originals, “Hung Up, Strung Out” was produced by Willie Mitchell in Memphis at Royal Recording Studios. The trumpet-blowing bandleader and his splendid house band—brothers Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar, bassist Leroy Hodges, and organist Charles Hodges along with drummer Howard “Bulldog” Grimes and a crack horn section–were the missing ingredients that transformed LaSalle into a star.
“One day, I heard a record that was recorded at Hi Records. This guy I knew wasn’t a great singer. His name was Al Perkins. He was not a really great singer. When I heard how well his record turned out, I said, ‘Who is that made Al sound so good?’ They said, ‘That’s Willie Mitchell in Memphis, Tennessee.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s where I want to go.’ So I came to Memphis and started recording,” she says. “We found someone who could really understand what I was doing. Because actually, what was happening with me, I’m not a musician. And I couldn’t convey what I was hearing in my head. Chicago musicians who went strictly by the rules: ‘If you don’t say it in musical terms, we can’t play it!’ That’s the way they felt. They wanted you to be able to speak in musician language to them, and I couldn’t do it. So I was coming out with nothing.
“When I went to Memphis, these guys said, ‘Hey, if you can hum it, we can play it!’ And that’s what we went for. 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.”
Even though Mitchell was tethered to Hi Records and working with Al Green and Ann Peebles as well as recording instrumentals for the firm under his own moniker, he was officially credited by Westbound as producer on Denise’s self-authored gem “Trapped By A Thing Called Love,” a seductive glider that soared all the way to the top of the R&B hit parade in the autumn of 1971. “I had fallen in love with Bill Jones in Chicago, and I wanted to write a song about it,” says LaSalle. “When we went to Memphis to record, it just turned out to be a one‑take situation. We cut it the first take that we ran on the recorder.”
Hot on its heels in early ‘72 came another smash, the LaSalle original “Now Run And Tell That” (Mitchell arranged it along with fellow Memphis trumpeter Gene “Bowlegs” Miller). Inspiration sprang this time from the sign-off phrase of a Chicago radio personality. “That was listening to Roy Wood, the news commentator on WVON,” says Denise. “Roy Wood used to do his commentary, and talk about what black people were going to do and planning to do. And then he would make his grand statement. He would say: ‘Now run and tell that!’ At the end of his commentary, that was an everyday thing. I listened to that comment so many times, and I said, ‘I’m gonna write a song!’”
That fall, LaSalle cooked up another slab of steaming Memphis soul that gave her three consecutive R&B blockbusters, the slightly bawdy “A Man Size Job.” “I was just sitting in the studio waiting for the band taking a break. I sat there, and I was singing the Staple Singers’ record (‘Respect Yourself’). I had a pencil and a pad in my hand, as usual. I was sitting there singing, ‘Get out the way and let the gentleman do his thing,’” she says. “I couldn’t remember any of the lines of that song, except that one.
“Then all of a sudden, ‘Get out the way’ turned into ‘Let a boy do a man‑size job!’ I mean, it jumped out of the clear blue! It happened! And I said, ‘Oh!’ and I wrote it down. And from there I said, ‘How would I say this? What would make me say, get out the way and let a man do a man‑size job?’ Then I had to think of a scenario that would make me say that. I wrote the song. When the band came back from their break, I called in a young man that has been playing on my records since almost day one, (guitarist) Michael Toles.
“I said, ‘Michael, come here! I’ve got something!’ And we started doing a little demo on it, right there in the studio, working up a little chord change structure for it. When the band came back, I said, ‘Hey guys, let’s play this!’ And we went for it, and cut it right on the spot. It turned out to be a big one.”
LaSalle was still on Westbound in 1976 when she cracked the R&B Top 20 with another steamy original, “Married, But Not To Each Other,” recorded in Detroit. “A friend of mine was talking to me one day, and he brought that title to me about somebody. He said, ‘Well, we’re both married, but not to each other!’ He had a little cheating thing he had going on. All the titles come something like that,” says LaSalle, who must have been delighted when Barbara Mandrell made her song a 1977 country smash.
“I can’t say that I’ve lived all of the things that I write about, but I have seen people around me that are living the things that I write about,” says LaSalle. “So it’s easy, because I observe people and the things that they go through. Then after I really started doing it, writing these type songs, people come to me and bring me their life stories. I may be working in a club one night, and here comes a lady that will come up and tell me her problems, and lay it on my shoulder as though I’m Dear Abby. So I’ve become Dear Abby for these people. I get a story out of what she’s saying, and put myself in that situation and what would I do about this man or this situation. And I write a song about it.”
Shortly after that, Denise moved to the far larger ABC label, hitting again with the seductive original “Love Me Right” in late ‘77. “The first album didn’t do too good, but the second album was a smash. The Bitch is Bad was a big one for me, and the next one was mediocre. Then they sold out to MCA. In the transition, I was one of the artists that they kept on the label, along with B.B. King and Bobby Bland.” MCA wasn’t able to do much for the singer despite issuing three albums, and LaSalle eventually found herself a free agent. Malaco contacted her in 1982.
“(Promotion man) Dave Clark, who was alive at the time, called and asked me to write a song for Z.Z. Hill, and I submitted that tune.” The song happened to be “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In,” which proved an instant blues standard. “I got a call from (Malaco boss) Stewart Madison, who said, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ I was between record companies at the time. And they said, ‘Well, if you can sing the blues, why don’t you come over and have a talk with us?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not a blues singer. Not really.’ They said, ‘Would you like to try? You write good music, so you think you could do something?’” With encouragement from her husband, Jackson, Tennessee businessman James “Super” Wolfe, Jr., she signed with Malaco and officially became a blues singer, releasing a solid string of albums stretching into the late ‘90s.
“It gave my career a new start, because I was kind of lost in the shuffle as an R&B singer,” says Denise. “When I got the opportunity to become a blues singer in 1982, I accepted it. There was no real competition, except the real Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor, (and) except for Etta James. These were the only ladies out there that was really doing anything, cutting records and getting airplay. It was kind of the place to be.” LaSalle remains there today, touring consistently (she performed at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival) and keeping things a tad suggestive in concert. Her fans would have it no other way.
“They always expect me to be naughty,” she laughs. “As a matter of fact, I have to convince some people that I’m not going to be naughty sometimes!”
Visit Denise’s FaceBook page at: www.facebook.com/DeniseLaSalletheQueenoftheBlues
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.