BluesWax Sittin’ In With
Two Memphis Albums Solidify
Lauper as a Blues Singer
By Charley Burch
Cyndi Lauper (born June 22, 1953) has recorded 13 albums, embarked on 19 tours, won six Grammys from 19 Grammy nominations, and released over 40 singles, sold one million DVDs, 20 million singles, and as of 2012 has sold more than more 50 million albums worldwide in her career. Whew!
When Lauper released her 1983 album She’s So Unusual, becoming the first female singer to have four top five singles released from one album, most of the music community was unaware that she was not only a fan and student of blues, but would also go on to record a fabulous Grammy-nominated blues album, Memphis Blues, and one year later release a Blues DVD/Live CD, To Memphis, With Love. Lauper was kind enough to discuss these projects and give us an insight of her as a blues singer, writer, arranger, historian, and a beautifully complex human being whose true love is music and its heritage.
Lauper recorded her introductory narration for To Memphis, With Love on her iPhone (she commented that “Everything is going digital”) as she walked the rainy streets of Memphis reminiscing about her childhood and preparing us for her evolution as a musician and blues artist.
“Most people’s introduction to the blues is at a concert or hearing a blues singer on the radio. Mine was at 104th street in Queens, New York, in a pink and white shingled house that looked like the color of Good & Plenty candy. There, on Saturdays when my mom was off from work and my sister and I were off from school, she would pull out her old Phillips stereo and play a Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong duet called “All That Meat And No Potatoes.” And there in the living room, my sister, aged eight, my brother, two, and I, seven, would dance wildly to it with my mom.”
Discussing the history of blues, rock, and their origins in Memphis in the Delta, one comes to understand that Lauper has done her homework. She walked the streets of Memphis for hours and days searching for the ghosts and origins of the project and character she was about to produce. When discussing the origins of blues and the famous W.C. Handy moment in Tutwiler, Mississippi, where the term “blues” was coined and codified by Handy in “St. Louis Blues” and “Yellow Dog Blues,” Lauper immediately contributed to the legacy of these songs reminding me that “St. Louis Blues” was renamed “Memphis Blues” and recorded by the Victor Military Band in 1914, and was used as a campaign song for early 20th century Memphis mayoral candidate Edward Crump. This later became the title of the album after toying with “Memphis Queen” (after the famous riverboat), which Lauper scrapped because she thought that it would come across as “arrogant” implying that she was the Memphis Queen.
“The title of the DVD was a whole conflict as well because I didn’t want to say From Memphis with Love like a postcard, because I felt that the title should be honoring and putting a spotlight on Memphis more than on myself.”
I then asked had she produced a blues or soul genre recording project before this one?
“No. I had recorded a classics album with standards, but not blues per se. I had studied blues my whole life but just had not found the correct opportunity to record it. I met up in the studio with Jeff Beck on Valentine’s Day in 2004 and we recorded a Big Maybelle tune and I realized ‘Wow! I can do this!’ So I started going to record stores and buying everything I could get my hands on that I liked. There was this Bobby Blue Bland album that the cover alone made me want to buy…Those shoes! I went through different phases, first a masculine phase, then a feminine phase being absorbed by Big Mamma Thornton. I studied the history of the blues, its evolution from both a recording and writing point of view. I learned that Mamie Smith‘s session recordings actually were supposed to be sung by Sophie Tucker. I am kinda glad it was Mamie Smith because, watching the minstrel shows of the period, it pissed me off that these performers were putting on blackface paint and impersonating the actual people. I found it to be twisted.”
The songs for the album that ultimately found their home on the DVD were selected by Lauper over a period of six years prior to her deciding upon Memphis and the artists as the album’s foundation. Lauper further proves her love of history and Memphis music heritage when she recollects about her tour of the STAX Museum and learning about the Soul Front. “I realized how ignorant I was …When I went to the museum and saw the pictures and story in front of me I went “Oh my G-d! that’s the Soul Front?! They sent the black men to the front [front line in Vietnam] and let them get killed first?” Lauper is extremely socially and morally conscious and very involved with activities/interest groups that include those that defend and support equal rights for women, gays, and people of color.
Lauper went on to describe the process of making the DVD To Memphis, With Love and the studio album Memphis Blues before that.
“The whole idea is how to preserve the sound and how to bring it forward. As I traveled around the world most of my audience didn’t want me to perform blues songs, but I played them anyway. I started to mix it with my music and weave it all [the different genres] together, mix it together, and ground it with my own work. Everything you have ever heard [from me] came from me. The center of everything has to sound like it comes from me, because if it didn’t sound like it came from me, it should have someone else’s name on that cover, not mine. The thing about the blues is, it is the root of everything. All of the modern music is blues. There’s no way that anything you play that you think is new really is, because it’s not.”
“All of the modern music is blues.”
Charley Burch for BluesWax: How did you hook up with Scott Bomar?
“I was looking for a partner to work this project with after signing with Downtown Records. I had two options: one was a person I had known and one that I didn’t. The one I knew was out in L.A. but I didn’t want to record this album out in L.A. because I didn’t think that would be much of a blues album for me. I knew I had to go south to have a real southern experience. So I was referred to this young man [Scott Bomar], who had begun a kind of renaissance down in Memphis. I researched him online, called him on the phone, and I decided to take a chance by going down to Memphis, record a couple of songs, and see how things worked out between us. So he met me at the hotel, we had a drink, next day went to his studio, and that’s how it happened. He’s the nicest guy; he’s very talented and has a sense of what he hears. He’s very quiet and not as direct as me and that is probably what makes us such a great team.”
BW: There are a great number of Memphis session players on this DVD that I have had the pleasure of recording with on a number of occasions. Had you worked with any of these guys before this project?
“I first met with Allen Toussaint at the Katrina benefit . I knew that he was this New Orleans gem. I started researching him more and the record people wanted me to record with him songs like “I Know You Don’t Love Me No More.” I found another song that I was able to mash up with that called “Last Train,” which was when I found out how adventurous Allen is. We’d planned on recording for several years, but things like The Apprentice and both our other projects got in the way. We took advantage of this album to bring Allen in and record another song, “You Promised Love,” by the blues singer Annie Laurie [not to be mistaken with the Scottish singer/actress]. However this was not the song [in my opinion] that would allow Allen to shine. So I went to Scott and said, ‘What can we record that B.B. King might want to play on’ and they said, ‘B.B. is a huge Louis Jordan fan.’”
To be continued…
Charley Burch is a writer and producer in Memphis, Tennessee.
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