Denise LaSalle with David Whiteis – Always The Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story
When people discuss the top female blues singers of all time, names like Koko Taylor, Etta James, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Big Mama Thornton will undoubtedly be part of the conversation. Equally certain is that Denise LaSalle will not enter into the discussion, a remarkable oversight given her lengthy career, hit records, and a vocal style that defined the “southern soul blues” genre.
Born in Mississippi, Ora Dee Allen grew up with seven siblings, her parents working as sharecroppers on a series of plantations, a common arrangement in the 1940s decade in the Delta region. Growing up singing in church, she dreamed of performing in front of large crowds, far from the hard-scrabble life she was living. Allen started writing stories as a way to express her dreams, a talent that served her well a bit further down the road. Eventually she traveled to Chicago with her mother to visit family. The bright lights enthralled the teenager, who did not want to return home. Her mother would not entertain the idea, stating that her daughter would have to be married if she wanted to leave the Mississippi family home. So Ora Dee cultivated a relationship with a man with a Chicago address, escaping once they had tied the knot.
While the marriage was short-lived, the aspiring singer was now surrounded by music in Chicago. She was singing gospel while visiting clubs and stage shows at the famous Regal Theater. Allen also put her writing skills to work, composing songs to sing when her dreams became reality. Her first big break was getting introduced to Billy “The Kid” Emerson, who had ties to Chess Records as a singer, songwriter and piano player.
Under his guidance, with a new stage name, LaSalle learned how to command a stage, gained confidence in her vocal prowess, and was schooled in the art of the music, including protecting the rights to your songs. He released her first record, “Love Reputation,” on his Tarpon label. It quickly shot up the Chicago radio charts, establishing LaSalle as an exciting new artist. But things soon soured with Emerson, who was increasingly jealous of her rising fame. After a violent encounter left their relationship in tatters, LaSalle made a vow to go her own way, a promise that guided her through life’s twists and turns.
Another highlight occurred when she was paired with Westbound Records out of Detroit and the talented producer Willie Mitchell and his Royal Studio in Memphis. Her second release on the label, “Trapped By A Thing Called Love,” made it to #1 on the national R&B chart. She followed that with a string of records, most featuring original material that delved into real-life situations, culminating with the hit, “Married, But Not to Each Other,” her warm voice soaring over the funky arrangement.
She cut several albums for ABC Records, dabbled in disco, and then returned to the charts when she signed with the Malaco Record label in 1982. Being cast as a blues singer didn’t sit well with LaSalle, who felt her style hadn’t changed. But the fifteen year stint with the label was a personal high point and expanded the audience for her stirring vocals. She continued to write captivating songs like “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In,” a hit for Z.Z. Hill, and “A Lady In The Street” plus “Your Husband Is Cheating On Us”.
A strong woman who maintained control of her life and career with unwavering dedication, LaSalle also offers her reactions to those times when racism reared it’s ugly head. Another interesting tale involves a close encounter with the legend known as Bob Dylan. Possessing a strong faith, she makes sure readers know when she felt God’s presence at work in her life, leading to a return to her gospel roots later in life. When she is laid low with serious health issues, her indomitable spirit lifts her up, keeping the focus on her dream of a Blues Academy to teach children about the music.
LaSalle tells her story in unflinching terms, unafraid to identify those that did her wrong, and ready to admit to her mistakes, like a relationship with a mysterious, but exciting, lover that ultimately put her in the cross-hairs of several law enforcement agencies. Married several times, she seems to give each husband a fair and honest appraisal, discussing their business ventures that included a production company and record labels. The book includes an eighteen page section of B&W photos spanning her life.
Sadly, the singer passed in early 2018, before this book was finished. No doubt she would be proud of the work of co-author David Whiteis did to prepare her story for publication. A long-time friend of the singer, Whiteis has authored several books, including Southern Soul-Blues, Blues Legacy: Tradition And Innovation In Chicago, and Chicago Blues: Portraits And Stories. His intimate knowledge of LaSalle and the blues genre make him the ideal writing partner.
A singer, songwriter, and business woman who always spoke her mind, Denise LaSalle was crowned the Undisputed Queen of the Blues in 2009 by the Mississippi Delta Blues Society in her hometown of Belzoni, MS. While others have laid claim to that title, which caused some amount of hurt for LaSalle, this autobiography offers ample justification for the award. Just make sure you grab a couple of her recordings to listen to while reading this fascinating volume that comes highly recommended!