Herstory: A Biography in Blues
Denise LaSalle, Queen of the Blues
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. LaSalle R&B/Soul Blues singer, songwriter, and record producer who has staggering output of 35 albums places her among the most prolific artist female 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, LaSalle has been recognized as the uncontested “Queen of the Blues”.
On July 16, 1941 near Sidon, Mississippi in Leflore County, Denise LaSalle (nee Ora Denise Allen) was born to Nathaniel Allen, Sr. and Nancy Allen. While Denise was an infant, her family moved to Belzoni in Humphrey County, in Mississippi’s. The Allen family worked as sharecroppers. Denise picked cotton and did other labor to help her parents make end neat. The Allen family were earnest, hard-working, church-going, and talented from. From an early age, Denise had a love for Country music and the Grand Ole Opry radio shows. The Allen family lived across the street from one of Belzoni’s “juke joints” and music, lore, and Blues culture was integral to her formative years. Denise sang Gospel music as a youth and was greatly influenced by the Queen of Gospel Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) who as a Columbia Records artist was a Black first having major concerts, a radio show, television show, and a huge international and interracial following in, then, Jim Crow divided America. Mahalia’s Blues-influenced style harked back to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey whose artistry records broke sales records and barriers in American music.
Following America’s entry into World War II, thousands of Black migrated from the farms and towns of the South for better-paying jobs in the factories that were making innumerable quantities of planes, tanks, trucks, bombs, and guns to fight the Axis Powers led by the belligerent miscreants: Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo. Mississippians by the score thousands left Mississippi for Chicago’s storied South Side. Among the tens of thousands of Mississippians to relocate for better opportunities were kinfolk of Denise Allen.
In the early 1950s, Mississippi became a racial caldron. The growing numbers of African American voters in Northern cities like Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and Detroit began using their voting power and organizations like the Regional Council on Negro Leadership, NAACP, Urban League, integrated labor unions and lesser-known groups to challenge America’s Apartheid-like system of state-sponsored racial segregation—infamously known as Jim Crow. Following the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945, the victorious Allies established an organization to maintain world peace and human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) ratified December 10, 1948, was a masterstroke of humanitarians and peace-loving people around the world aiming to fight for all people to live in dignity. As the world’s foremost leader, the United Nation’s built it’s headquarters in New York City, and this honor caused many Americans to want to be wholly compliant with the obligations of being the caretakers of human rights. However, American society of the middle 20th century was stained by the history of slavery, intolerance and racial discrimination as integral to the national fabric. Forward-thinking leaders and intellectuals and civic leaders began to push for needed social reforms. When president Harry Truman began to use his powers to change federal laws and policies that infringed on local laws and customs that enshrined racial injustice, many of the Southern states and municipalities outside of the South resisted all efforts to challenge Jim Crow. In addition to the federal efforts, returning African American veterans challenged the racial feudalism of the South. Arguably, Mississippi had the infamous reputation of being the most oppressive state for Blacks living in America. Mississippi’s racial order had been crystalized by mob-terror, lynching, a prison system that boasted the notorious Parchman Farm and a brutal convict lease system, debt-peonage in the form of sharecropping, and draconian laws meant to maintain a hierarchy where Blacks were ever tethered to the bottom rung of society. Amid these colliding social forces, a little girl named Denise felt all the many pressures of living in the Deep South.
Annually starting in 1949 to 1953, Nancy Allen took Denise’s to visit family living in Chicago. The Windy City and Belzoni were worlds apart in scale and scope. Denise marveled at Chicago’s vast South Side community where it has famed Bronzeville, then, had America’s largest Black community rivaled only by New York’s teaming Harlem. Chicago was home to Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington, and countless other notable African Americans. Furthermore, Mississippi Bluesmen made landmark recordings at Chess Records, and the market on Maxwell Street was a thriving music and commercial center. As she matured, Denise realized she did not have the disposition to conform to the racial etiquette of Mississippi.
Mississippi in the 1950s was facing an upsurge in activism among Blacks. In the early 1950s, African American men like T.R.M. Howard, Medgar Evers, and Rev. George W. Lee began to challenge the social order, and the Civil Rights Movement era witnessed many men that Denise knew be killed or forced to leave Mississippi. In 1954, Denise, fearful of violence sure to come when Blacks tried to advance, fled Belzoni for Chicago. In Chicago, Denise worked in various jobs as a barmaid, bakery chef, presser for a drycleaners, and she knew life had more to offer. Denise had been in an all-female Gospel quartet, and she wrote stories for various newspapers and pulp magazines like The Tan, Jet and True Stories.
Denise spent lots of time around Blues and R&B musicians and she began writing songs, influenced by country music as well as the blues. Denise gained the respect of local musicians, and, in time, she won a recording contract with Chess Records in 1967. Wanting a more dramatic name as a performing artist she kept her first name Denise and added to it the surname LaSalle from a major Chicago street as a stage name. Her first single, “A Love Reputation” was a modest regional hit. “Love Reputation” were Denise’s words sung over a music track that had been originally used by soul legend Gene Chandler who’s song “Duke of Earl” topped the R&B and Pop charts in 1962. Immediately, “Love Reputation” on the small independent Tarpon label became a regional hit in Chicago. The brisk sales and radio play moved Denise from a working girl to a regional star making more money in minutes than what she earned in a week of toil. LaSalle sang in the clubs and other live performance venues in Gary, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, and other cities in the region.
In 1969, Denise LaSalle married Bill Jones with whom she collaborated producing records including on their wedding day, and she established an independent production company, Crajon, with her then husband. Westbound Records based in Detroit released LaSalle’ signature song “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” in 1971. The record reached #1 on the national R&B chart and #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and “Trapped By A Thing Called Love“ ranked at #85 on the 1971 year-end chart. The Recording Industry of America Association (RIAA) gold disc award was made on November 30, 1971 for a million sales. In 1971, Denise LaSalle, who also wrote and produced other artists, teamed Soul belter Bill Coday (May 10, 1942- June 7, 2008) with Willie Mitchell. LaSalle and Mitchell put Coday on R&B chart with LaSalle penned classics: “Get Your Lie Straight” (#14) and When You Find a Fool, Bump His Head” (#48).
Crajon LaSalle’s independent production company continued to produce hit songs. Lasalle, gifted composer, 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 charted in Billboard’s Hot 100. LaSalle’s early hits were recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, then, owned and operated by the famed nonpareil producers Willie “Papa Willie” Mitchell (March 1, 1928-January 5, 2010), using the Memphis Horns and other professional Southern session musicians. LaSalle to record hit-making songs on the Westbound label and afterwards ABC Records into the late 1970s including: “Love Me Right” (#10 R&B, #80 pop). LaSalle’s reputation as a professional live performer with excellent shows made her staple of marques in concert halls across the world. LaSalle music, wit, and high-energy shows drew Blues, Soul, R&B, Country, and Adult Contemporary fans. LaSalle’s concerts fueled the sale of her music and request for concert appearances before large audiences in Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa. Lasalle’s song, “Married, But Not to Each Other” (#16 R&B) in 1977 was covered by the famed Country Music and Television sensation Barbara Mandrell’s version the song reached #3 on both the American and Canadian Country music charts and was included on the albums Lovers, Friends and Strangers (1977) on The Best of Barbara Mandrell released in 1979.
In the early 1980s, she signed a recording contract with Malaco Records as a singer and songwriter, for whom she released a string of critically acclaimed albums over more than 20 years, starting with Lady in the Street (1983) and Right Place, Right Time (1984). 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. LaSalle appeared at the 1984 and 1993 Long Beach Blues Festival, and in 1993, she performed at the San Francisco Blues Festival. Her album Smokin’ In Bed (1997) sold well.
Denise has always worked with the leading stars in the music business. She retains a loyalty to her favorite personalities of Blues nobility: B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Tyrone Latimore, Willie Clayton, Millie Jackson, and Betty Wright. The Queen of the Blues, proud of the revival of interest in the Blues by newer generations, says, “There are so many nice younger great singers coming along. It is so good to know that our music will always be around”. The Queen can take some of the credit for the Blues revival, because she has pushed to keep the music alive by founding the National Association for the Preservation of the Blues (NAPOB) in 1986. She actively collaborates, mentors younger Blues musicians, and is a potent voice for the Blues on radio, television, and in print media internationally
As the new millennium set in, Denise LaSalle showed no interest in slowing down or retiring from the Blues heights she had climbed in the previous era because she felt she still had more music to contribute to humanity. In 2005, she became a label mate of Ecko Records blasting back onto the charts with new self-produced album “Hot Smoking Guns” declaring, “I’m Still the Queen”. Denise has refuses to leave the Blues field to less-experienced young female vocalists upstarts who have not paid their dues. Immediately afterwards, LaSalle dropped another hot CD titled “Wanted” that featured the single “Snap, Crackle and Pop” which was a witty comeback response to Theodus Edley’s “Stand Up On It” and all the other guys that boast that they know how to please a woman. Lasalle’s singles “The Thrill is On” and her remake of Barbara Carr’s “Bone It Like You Own It” smoldered on Blues-formatted radio playlists and stations keeping the legacy alive. In 2007, Denise recorded and produced her final EKCO CD “Pay Before You Pump” that featured the Blues hit “It’s Going Down”. In 2008, Denise continued to record at the famed Royal Studio in Memphis with her legendary mentor the late Willie “Papa Willie” Mitchell the aegis of the platinum torrent that issued forth from HI Records best known for the Soul paragon Al Green.
In 2009, Denise LaSalle made a critically received music video “Still Talking About a Man” for Angel in the Midst Records, and she as part of the West Tennessee Cultural Heritage Association hosted the famed Motown Funk Brothers that opened the doors for the often overlooked sessions men to be featured at the National Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington, D.C. that celebrated the Urban Blues and R&B in 2011. Blues enthusiasts wracked by grief at the death of the late reigning Queen of Blues Ko Ko Taylor formally passed the honorary royal mantle and title of “Queen of the Blues” to Denise LaSalle in Belzoni, Mississippi, in July of 2009. Lasalle returned to Malaco for her 2010 cd project titled “24 Hour Woman”. LaSalle remains in demand as a live performer at festivals. In 2011, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Denise’s concern about the need for citizens to support the Red Cross released the Gospel-Funk single “Blood Donor” that was used in public education campaigns in West Tennessee. In 2012-2013, Denise returned to Malaco Records to record and produce a new CD. In 2014, Denise headlined the Ultimate Blues Cruise; toured Italy before thousands of enraptured fans who received the LaSalle Blues mystique with repeated encore calls. Presently, Denise LaSalle performs at Blues festivals and venues that respect her craft, and she has a single with Big Rob titled “Blues and Barbeque” and is completing her latest CD “Cougar On the Loose” on Ordena Records. In 2013 and 2014, LaSalle was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the ‘Soul Blues Female Artist’ category. On June 6, 2015, LaSalle was inducted into the Mississippi Blues Hall of Fame.
- 1967 Love Reputation
- 1971 “craving for you”
- 1972 Trapped By A Thing Called Love
- 1972 Doin’ it right
- 1973 On The Loose
- 1975 Here I Am Again
- 1976 Second Breath
- 1977 The Bitch Is Bad!
- 1978 Under The Influence
- 1978 Shot Of Love
- 1979 Unwrapped
- 1980 I’m So Hot
- 1981 Guaranteed
- 1983 A Lady In The Street
- 1984 Right Place Right Time
- 1985 Love Talkin’
- 1985 My Toot Toot
- 1986 Rain And Fire
- 1987 It’s Lying Time Again
- 1989 Hittin´ Where It Hurts
- 1989 Holdin’ Hands With The Blues
- 1990 Still Trapped
- 1992 Love Me Right
- 1994 I’m Here Again … Plus
- 1995 Still Bad
- 1997 Smokin’ In Bed
- 1999 God’s Got My Back
- 2000 This Real Woman
- 2001 I Get What I Want – The Best Of
- 2001 There’s No Separation
- 2002 Still The Queen
- 2003 My Toot Toot: Definitive Anthology
- 2004 Wanted
- 2007 Pay Before You Pump
- 2010 24 Hour Woman
- 1967 “Love Reputation” / “One Little Thing”
- 1970 “Trying To Forget” / “We’ve Got Love”
- 1971 “Trapped By A Thing Called Love” / “Keep It Coming”
- 1972 “Now Run And Tell That” / “The Deeper I Go, The Better It Gets”
- 1972 “Man Sized Job” / “I’m Over You”*
- 1972 “Heartbreaker Of The Year” / “Hung Up Strung Out”
- 1972 “Too Late To Check Your Trap” / “Heartbreaker Of The Year”
- 1972 “Right Track” / “Too Late To Check Your Trap”
- 1973 “What It Takes To Get A Good Woman” / “Make a Good Thing Better”
- 1973 “Your Man And Your Best Friend / “What Am I Doing Wrong”
- 1974 “Don’t Nobody Live Here (By The Name Of Fool)” / “Good Goody Getter”
- 1974 “Get Up Off My Mind” / “Best Thing I Ever Had”
- 1975 “My Brand On You” / “Any Time Is The Right Time”
- 1975 “Here I Am Again” / “Hung Up Strung Out”
- 1975 “Count Down” / “A Promise Is A Promise (And Fly Me To The Moon)”
- 1976 “Married But Not To Each Other” / “Who’s The Fool”
- 1976 “Hellfire Loving” / “Versions”
- 1977 “Freedom To Express Yourself” / “Second Breath”
- 1977 “Love Me Right” / “Fool Me Good”
- 1978 “One Life To Live” / “Before You Take It To The Streets”
- 1978 “Workin’ Overtime” / “No Matter What They Say”
- 1979 “P.A.R.T.Y. (Where Is It?)” / “Under The Influence”
- 1979 “Think About It” / “Versions”
- 1980 “Try My Love” / “May The Funk B With You”
- 1980 “I’m So Hot” / “Versions”
- 1981 “I’m Trippin’ On You” / “I’ll Get Some Help (& Satisfaction)”
- 1983 “Down Home Blues” / “X-Rated Versions”
- 1983 “Lady In The Street” / “I Was Not The Best Woman”
- 1983 “Lay Me Down” / “I Was Telling Him About You”
- 1983 “Come To Bed” / “Keeps Me Running Back”
- 1983 “Come To Bed” / “I Was Not The Best Woman”
- 1984 “Right Place Right Time” / “Come To Bed”
- 1984 “Right Place Right Time” / “Bump And Grind”
- 1984 “Treat Your Man Like A Baby” / “Come To Bed”
- 1984 “He’s Not Available” / “Right Place Right Time”
- 1985 “My Toot Toot” / “Give Me Yo’ Most Strongest Whisky”
- 1985 “Santa Claus Got The Blues” / “Love Is A Five Letter Word”
- 1986 “Let The Four Winds Blow” / “Sometimes” / “Right Time, Right Place”
- 1986 “What’s Going On In My House” / “Learnin’ How To Cheat On You”
- 1989 “Bring It On Home To Me” / “Write This One Off”
- 1989 “I Forgot To Remember” / “Caught In Your Own Mess”
- 1989 “Don’t Cry No More” / “Eee Tee”
- 1990 “Drop That Zero” / “Trapped 1990”
- 1992 “Don’t Pick It Up” / “Don’t Jump My Pony”
- 1992 “When We’re Making Love” / “Don’t Pick It Up”
- 1992 “Don’t Jump My Pony” / “Juke Box Strip”
- 1992 “Fool Me Good” / “Love Me Right”
- 1995 “Right Side Of The Wrong Bed”
- 1995 “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy“
- 2001 “There’s No Separation”
- 2002 “24 Hours”
- this biography on the Queen Denise LaSalle was written by Randy