Editor's ChoiceFeaturedMississippi Blues Trail Series

Mississippi Blues Trail Series: Denise LaSalle

By Deborah Chatham .

Photos by Stephen Anderson .
Edited by Johnny Cole .

The Southland Music Line continues our Mississippi Blues Trail Series at the marker recognizing Denise LaSalle, located near 102 Castleman Street west of Church Street in Belzoni, Mississippi. Born Ora Denise Allen, from humble beginnings, she was the youngest of eight children. Her parents were sharecroppers, and she picked cotton alongside them to help support the family.

LaSalle spent her early years in Belzoni, Mississippi, singing in church and local gospel groups. By age 13, Denise had quit school and moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live with her oldest brother. During their first five years in Chicago, LaSalle sang the lead with an all-female gospel group known as the Sacred Five and ultimately took the stage name Denise LaSalle, because she liked that “LaSalle sounded French.” In 1963, under the tutelage of Billy “The Kid” Emerson, she signed a recording contract with Chess Records. LaSalle left Chess Records for their failure to record her album for almost five years but later signed with Emerson again under his new label, Tarpon Records. In 1967, she completed her General Education Requirements (GED) and released a regional hit called “A Love Reputation.” What a busy year by any standards, but certainly for an eighteen-year-old!

Top photo: Mississippi Blues Trail Marker recognizing Denise LaSalle (front side);  Above photo: Mississippi Blues Trail Marker recognizing Denise LaSalle (back side)

LaSalle married Bill Jones, and together, they formed a production company called Crajon. The marriage lasted only five years, but during that time, she released a record, “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” on Detroit’s Westbound Records. This single reached #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and made it all the way to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart. LaSalle received the gold record disc from The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for over a million record sales of this single.

Over her sixty-year career, Denise LaSalle was a prolific writer and an accomplished recording artist. Robert Christgau wrote of her: “LaSalle seems to be a songwriter first and a singer second, which may be why there’s a certain professional anonymity about her unusual moods. But the voice is there – sensual, warm, even wise, ideal for [producer] Willie Mitchell’s meditative Memphis funk.” – Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies

LaSalle had the opportunity to sit in and record with some of the best R&B musicians and session musicians. She wrote and performed blues, R&B, and soul and was also influenced by country music. One of the songs she co-wrote, “Married, But Not to Each Other,” appeared on The Best of Barbara Mandrell, a compilation album. LaSalle’s range extended to many genres, and in interviews, she said Westbound and ABC/MCA allowed her liberty to record what she wanted. During the Malaco Records years, she was more limited to the ‘hard blues’ style for which the label was known. She stayed with Malaco for 15 years, initially signing on as a writer until they persuaded her to record herself. This change from writing to performing led to a string of critically acclaimed albums, including Lady in the Street (1983), Right Place, Right Time (1984), and My Too-Too (1985), which brought her acclaim in the United Kingdom when it reached #6 on the UK singles chart.

From left to right: Deejay E. Rodney Jones giving Denise LaSalle her gold record for “Trapped”; Denise LaSalle in a publicity photo from 1999 (courtesy of Malaco Records); Denise LaSalle with her father Nathaniel Allen, Sr., who she recalls used to sing blues songs around their home.

Denise LaSalle enjoyed a reputation as a blues artist but also wanted to write and perform other genres. After leaving Malaco, she formed her own recording label, Ordena. During this time, she recorded This Real Woman, composed of various music styles, including pop, country, and R&B. After a ten-year hiatus from Malaco, Denise returned to record traditional blues with the label once again.

LaSalle married James E. Wolfe, Jr. in 1976. He went by the “Super Wolfe” moniker while working as a disc jockey and head of several radio stations. Denise and her husband opened the Blues Legend Restaurant in Jackson, Tennessee, in 2012, but it closed just before her death. She aimed to provide good food and bring in blues artists to introduce the genre to younger performers. LaSalle had hoped to open the Denise LaSalle Blues Academy of Performing Arts in Jackson and was still working to achieve that goal until her death.

The music community has recognized Denise LaSalle for her many contributions to the blues. Some of her highest honors include:
Mississippi Blues Trail Marker placed in Belzoni, Mississippi (2009)
Induction into the Blues Hall of Fame (2011)
Induction into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame (2015)

LaSalle developed heart issues and had to have her right leg amputated following complications from a fall. She died in 2018 surrounded by her children and other family members.

Denise LaSalle wrote, performed, and recorded up until the end of her life. She never lost her devotion to music, songwriting abilities, or voice. LaSalle worked tirelessly to introduce younger audiences and performers to the blues. Denise LaSalle has earned her place among the blues icons from Mississippi and beyond.

Mississippi Blues Trail Marker recognizing Denise LaSalle, located near 102 Castleman Street west of Church Street in Belzoni, Mississippi

Click Here for Other Articles in our Mississippi Blues Trail Series.

● Alexander, O. (2021, June 25). Denise LaSalle (1934-2018). BlackPast.org.
● Mississippi Blues Trail official website.
● Shields, B. (2018, January 9). ‘Queen of the Blues’ Denise LaSalle Dies. The Jackson Sun. Jackson, Tennessee.

● Wikipedia. Denise LaSalle

Page Designed & Edited by Johnny Cole
© The Southland Music Line. 2024.
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