Denise LaSalle, whose sizzling “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” topped the Billboard R&B charts in 1971, and who called Chicago home for many years, has died. She was 78. According to reports, Ms. LaSalle died Monday night in a Jackson, Tennessee, hospital surrounded by her family.
The blues queen, whose real name was Ora Denise Allen, was born in Leflore County, Mississippi, in 1939. She moved to Chicago as a teenager and ultimately signed with Chess records. Her most recent Chicago appearance was at the 2017 Chicago Blues Festival.
“I made up my mind that I was leaving Mississippi if it’s the last thing I do,” LaSalle told the Chicago Reader in a June 2017 interview. In Chicago she took the name “LaSalle” from a French character she saw in a newspaper cartoon. She spent a few years with gospel group the Sacred Five before meeting R&B singer Billy “the Kid” Emerson while she worked as a barmaid at a lounge on 51st and Calumet. She credited Emerson with launching her career.
“She was my friend since she was 18 or 19,” blues legend Bobby Rush said late Tuesday night. “We were planning to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passing of Martin Luther King on Saturday in Memphis [with a concert] like we did last year for the 49th anniversary, and now we will be burying her on that day instead. … As a singer, she was unique and different and she knew what she wanted in song, she knew how she was gonna say it, and whether you liked it or not, she said it. She was a good writer and a good human being. She was my dear friend. She is gone but she will not be forgotten.”
The singer/songwriter, whose musical styles ran the gamut from blues to soul to R&B, released more than 30 albums in her 50-year career, her most recent studio effort being “24 Hour Woman” in 2010. Her Top Ten R&B singles, which, in addition to “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” also included “Now Run and Tell That” and “Man Sized Job” (Westbound Records), catapulted her to fame in the 1970s.
In recent months, Ms. LaSalle was dealing with several health issues, and in October she underwent surgery to amputate her right leg after suffering a fall. She’d planned to open the Denise LaSalle Blues Academy of Performing Arts in Jackson, Tennessee, and was still working to accomplish her goal, the Jackson Sun reported.
With the passing of blues icon and “Queen of the Blues” Koko Taylor in 2009, the beloved moniker was passed to Ms. LaSalle, her longtime friend. Taylor’s daughter Joyce “Cookie” Threatt, recalled the decades-long friendship the two women shared.
“She was one of my mom’s best friends,” Threatt said Tuesday night. “She knew Denise for almost 45 years, ever since she came to Chicago. … I think about the times that she would see an outfit my mother had and she’d say, ‘Girl, I love that!’ And my mom would later send it to her,” Threatt continued, talking through tears. [Her passing] is just overwhelming and my heart is broken.”
Ms. LaSalle founded the National Association for the Preservation of the Blues in 1986. She was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2015.
“Denise was the last one — Etta [James] is gone. My mother is gone,” Threatt continued. “She had a unique voice, like my mother had a unique voice. My mother was known for the roughness and the growl, the toughness —the traditional side of the blues. Denise had a huge voice, but she had that Southern gospel sound. And she was a phenomenal songwriter. She could write blues, soul, gospel, even country. She truly had a gift. She committed her life to music and she went out like the queen I know my mother wanted her to be. She went out at the top of her game.”
Ms. LaSalle is survived by her husband, disc jockey James “Super Wolfe” Wolfe Jr.