Denise LaSalle, Singer and Writer of Earthy Songs, Dies at 78
Denise LaSalle, a durable blues and soul singer and songwriter who in a half-century-long career delved in song into love, cheating, pleasure and heartache, mixing romance with raunchiness, died Monday in Jackson, Tenn. She was 78.
She died in a hospital from complications of surgery, according to her longtime label, Malaco Records.
In October, LaSalle, who lived in Jackson, underwent a leg amputation resulting from complications after a fall. She never fully recovered.
LaSalle recorded blues, soul, gospel and even zydeco music. But at the core of her catalog were down-to-earth story-songs, written or chosen by LaSalle, that revolved around lust. She wrote hundreds of songs, among them “Your Husband Is Cheating on Us,” “Married, but Not to Each Other,” “I Wanna Do What’s on Your Mind” and “It’s Lying Time Again.” In some of her songs, such as “Snap, Crackle and Pop,” she gave explicit tips on sexual technique.
“Even before I started doing it on record, I was naughty but nice in person,” LaSalle told Blues Blast magazine in 2017. “It comes naturally. Because that’s the way life is.”
LaSalle was born Ora Denise Allen on July 6, 1939, near Sidon in Leflore County in the Mississippi Delta. She moved with her family to the Delta town of Belzoni when she was 7. She sang in church and heard country music and blues on the radio.
At 13, she moved on her own to Chicago, where she sang with a gospel group, the Sacred Five. Hoping to be a writer, she had a story published in Tan magazine. But after magazines rejected her other fiction, she turned to writing poems and, soon, songs.
She took her stage surname, LaSalle, from a French character in a newspaper comic strip. Her first single, in 1967, was “A Love Reputation,” a boast about man-stealing skills. Chess Records released her next few singles before she and her husband at the time, Bill Jones, started their own production company, Crajon, in 1969. LaSalle also supplied songs for other Crajon performers; one composition, “Get Your Lie Straight,” was a hit in 1971 for singer Bill Coday.
For her next singles, LaSalle chose a Memphis producer, Willie Mitchell, who also produced Al Green’s hits. “Hung Up, Strung Out” got her signed to a Detroit label, Westbound, in 1970, and in 1971 she wrote and sang the biggest hit of her career, the million-selling No. 1 R&B single “Trapped by a Thing Called Love.” It also reached No. 13 on the Billboard pop chart, her only Top 40 crossover in the United States. She returned to the national R&B charts in the 1970s with songs including “Now Run and Tell That,” “Man Sized Job,” “Love Me Right” and “Married, but Not To Each Other,” a song that also became a country hit for Barbara Mandrell in 1977.
After divorcing Jones in 1974, LaSalle moved to Tennessee, where she met disc jockey James E. Wolfe Jr., who would found the radio station WFKX in Jackson. They married in 1977; he survives her, along with their children, Ray Kight, Dawn Beard and Bridgette Wolfe.
In 1982, LaSalle eased her music slightly toward blues and signed to the Mississippi-based Malaco label, where she recorded for most of the next three decades and wrote songs for other performers, including Z.Z. Hill. On her 1980s Malaco albums, she was often backed by the renowned Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. “My Tu-Tu,” her 1985 version of the Rockin’ Sidney zydeco hit “My Toot Toot,” was a hit in the United States and in Europe, reaching No. 6 on the British Top 10. LaSalle made gospel albums from 1999 to 2001, but she returned to secular music in the 2000s with albums such as “Pay Before You Pump” (2007).
She toured steadily, largely in the Southeast, with occasional trips to Europe. In recent years, she made efforts to start a school for young musicians in Jackson.
She was nominated this year by the Blues Foundation for a Blues Music Award in the soul blues female artist category, alongside Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette, and she was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
“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,” LaSalle said in her Blues Blast interview. “So it’s easy, because I observe people and the things that they go through.”
Jon Pareles is a New York Times writer.