RIP: Denise LaSalle

Posted January 10, 2018 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

“Queen of the blues” dies at the age of 78

deniselasalle-picOn January 8, blues legend Denise LaSalle died in Jackson, Tennessee at the age of 78 after suffering from numerous ailments including congestive heart failure and complications from a foot amputation resulting from a leg injury. According to reports, she succumbed on Monday, surrounded by family and loved ones at a hospital.

Often billed by blues fans as the Queen of the Blues since the passing of blues great Koko Taylor, LaSalle (named Ora Denise Allen) was born in Leflore County located in northwest Mississippi. The singer rose as a burgeoning R&B songwriter and started releasing sides for Tarpon Records, her first being “A Love Reputation,” a modest 1966 regional hit. In 1968, she had a short-lived contract with Chess Records, ultimately recording one single (“Count Down (And Fly Me to the Moon),” “A Promise Is a Promise”).  LaSalle later moved on to Detroit’s Westbound Records in the early ‘70’s and found major success there. With “Trapped By a Thing Called Love,” a gold-certified single, she hit number one R&B and netted a Top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. With Hi Records’ producer Willie Mitchell behind the sound, follow-ups were expected, which included “Now Run and Tell That” and “Man Sized Job.” Both of them were top ten hits on the R&B charts and showed strong signs on the pop charts.

After leaving Westbound and heading to ABC Records, she found continued success there with “Love Me Right” (#10 R&B). A short stint in the early’80’s with MCA made way for a few post-disco offerings that included 1979’s “Think About It” and the hi-NRG-sprinkled “Try My Love.” The finest of the MCA material was “I’m Trippin’ on You,” a LaSalle-penned gem possessed with Evelyn “Champagne” King gusto. It also featured former backing band Satisfaction, a group made up of Memphis’s finest musicians, including Isaac Hayes backers Michael Toles and Marvell Thomas. In his review of 1981’s Guaranteed, the album that contained “I’m Trippin’ on You,” rock critic Robert Christgau praised it, focused intently on the song “E.R.A. (Equal Rights Amendment”) and proclaimed the disc was “ideal for dance-party fund-raisers.”

In an era when blues was quickly becoming a Southern staple and regulated to underground, mature audiences, LaSalle found the next phase of her music career to be just as rewarding as the first half. Signing with Jackson, Mississippi’s Malaco Records in the early ‘80’s, LaSalle (along with a handful of Southern blues titans like Little Milton, Latimore, Bobby “Blue” Bland and “Disco Lady” star Johnnie Taylor) discovered an untapped, often-neglected audience and began bending her music towards sassy. The music, still saturated in juke joint soul, became open letters of adultery (“Your Husband Is Cheating On Us,” “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In”), salacious sex (“Lady in the Streets,” “Snap Crackle Pop,” “Long Dong Silver”) and even naughty explicit blues bending towards banned-from-radio territory. What Barbara Mason and Millie Jackson did for R&B, LaSalle was willing to do for the blues. Her infamous 1983 cover of ZZ Hill’s “Down Home Blues” seemed to be a precursor to the late-night potty-mouth imitations (Clarence Carter, Poonanny, Marvin Sease) to come. Her strongest career standout of that period became “(Don’t Mess With (My Tu-tu),” a 1985 song that piggybacked on the synthpop sounds of Patti LaBelle’s MCA showings and Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On.” Thanks to its bubbly synths playing in a creole jazz-zydeco flavor and the deep South-styled production of Tommy Couch-Wolf Stephenson, the song — a cover of Rockin’ Sidney’s 1984 “Don’t Mess With My Toot Toot” version — was picked up by Epic for distribution and released in the UK, where it landed at number 6.

In 1991, Malaco — surviving as the king of the surviving blues labels — packaged together the best of their European tour blues showcase from 1989 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, which included performances from Johnnie Taylor, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Mosley & Johnson. All Music Guide’s Niles Frantz wrote prolifically of the double-disc set, claiming “anything LaSalle has done lately is worth listening to, and it’s nice to have a snapshot of her in-concert style.” That style resembled the sassy, confident soul of Betty Wright, but glossed with a glass of Hennessey.


Later in life, LaSalle continued to release content on Malaco, even recording a gospel album (God’s Got My Back) and was inducted into both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame.

LaSalle is survived by her husband, former radio personality and disc jockey James “Super Wolfe” Wolfe Jr.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


Be the first to comment!

Leave a Response


Please support HIFI Magazine
By clicking any of these buttons you help our site to get better