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Unlike so many other blues vocalists who just reinterpret material given to them by songwriters, Denise LaSalle is a seriously talented songwriter. Although her soul blues style has strong urban contemporary overtones at times, it's best to think of LaSalle as a modern-day Bessie Smith, because that's really what she is. She writes funny songs full of sassy attitude and it's an attitude she carries with her on-stage. Off-stage, LaSalle accommodates all autograph seekers and gladly obliges journalists and radio disc jockeys.
The Jackson, TN-based LaSalle was raised in Belzoni, MS, (also home to Joe Willie "PineTop" Perkins some years earlier) but she got started singing in local churches around Leflore County. She was born July 16, 1939, as Denise Craig. Growing up, she listened to the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts and then in Belzoni, lived across the street from a juke joint. LaSalle's early influences, from the jukeboxes around Belzoni and over the radio, included Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington, and LaVern Baker. LaSalle moved north to Chicago when she was in her early twenties and would attend shows at the Regal Theatre, always returning home to write songs. She got to know blues musicians and began giving her songs to them, until one day a Chess Records executive stopped by at Mixer's Lounge, where LaSalle was working as a bar maid. He listened to one of her songs and took it down to Chess Records, and the company later signed her as a vocalist, but never recorded her. Two years later, LaSalle recorded and produced her own record with the help of Billy "The Kid" Emerson, the Chess executive who'd originally shown an interest in her. After the record made some waves on local radio, Chess stepped in and purchased the master and took it to Europe. Meanwhile, LaSalle continued writing songs and sitting in with blues musicians around the Chicago clubs.
LaSalle's first big hit came about in 1971 when her "Trapped By a Thing Called Love" broke on the radio in Chicago and then Detroit. That record was for the Westbound label and then she signed with ABC Records in 1975, cutting three albums in three years until the label was sold to MCA. After MCA dropped her because of the label's "difficulty in promoting black acts" at that time, she continued performing as much as she could in Chicago and Memphis. In 1980, a Malaco executive called to ask her to write a song for Z.Z. Hill. A positive relationship with the company was quickly developed, which resulted in LaSalle recording 11 discs for the label, including Lady in the Street, (1983), Right Place, Right Time, (1984), Love Talkin', (1985), Hittin' Where It Hurts, (1989), Still Trapped, (1990), Still Bad, (1994), and Smokin' in Bed (1997). While her Malaco sides are probably her most important recordings, other than the original of her early-'70s hit "Trapped," she still releases excellent gospel crossover material, including This Real Woman (2000) and There's No Separation (2001) on Ordena Records and Little Bit Naughty (2008) on Shout.
Ora Denise Allen (born July 16, 1939, Belzoni, Mississippi, United States), known by the stage name Denise LaSalle, is an American blues and R&B/soul singer, songwriter, and record producer.
Born near Sidon, Mississippi and raised in Belzoni, she sang in local churches before moving to Chicago in the early 1960s. She sat in with R&B musicians and wrote songs, influenced by country music as well as the blues, before winning a recording contract with Chess Records in 1967. Her first single, "A Love Reputation" was a modest regional hit.
After establishing an independent production company, Crajon, with her then husband Bill Jones, her first major success came in 1971 when her self-penned song, "Trapped By A Thing Called Love" was released on Detroit-based Westbound Records. This reached #1 on the national R&B chart and #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song ranked at #85 on the 1971 year-end chart. The RIAA gold disc award was made on 30 November 1971 for a million sales.
She also 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 also charted in the Hot 100. Her early hits were recorded at the Hi recording studios in Memphis, operated by Willie Mitchell, using the cream of southern session players. She continued to have hits on Westbound and then on ABC Records through the mid-1970s, including "Love Me Right" (#10 R&B, #80 pop) She continued to produce and perform live. Her co-penned song, "Married, But Not to Each Other" (#16 R&B) was included in the 1979 The Best of Barbara Mandrell, compilation album.
In the early 1980s, she signed as a singer and songwriter with Malaco Records, 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 versions of the Long Beach Blues Festival, and also in 1993, she performed at the San Francisco Blues Festival. Her 1997 album Smokin' In Bed was an unexpected commercial success. After more than a decade away, when she recorded three albums with small Memphis-based soul-blues label, Ecko, she returned to Malaco for her 2010 outing called "24 Hour Woman".
She continues to work as a live performer, particularly at festivals, and more recently has issued more gospel-tinged material. In 2011, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
LaSalle now lives with her husband, James E. Wolfe, in Jackson, Tennessee, where she recently opened a restaurant called Blues Legend Cafe.
In 2013, LaSalle was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the 'Soul Blues Female Artist' category.