Straight from the mouth of Hugh Laurie, on his many deeply blues influences and his new album:
I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s. You may as well know this now. I’ve never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. No gypsy woman said anything to my mother when I was born and there’s no hellhound on my trail, as far as I can judge. Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south.
If that weren’t bad enough, I’m also an actor: one of those pampered ninnies who hasn’t bought a loaf of bread in a decade and can’t find his way through an airport without a babysitter. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that I’ve got some Chinese characters tattooed on my arse. Or elbow. Same thing.
Worst of all, I’ve broken a cardinal rule of art, music, and career paths: actors are supposed to act, and musicians are supposed to music. That’s how it works. You don’t buy fish from a dentist, or ask a plumber for financial advice, so why listen to an actor’s music?
The answer is – there is no answer. If you care about provenance and genealogy, then you should try elsewhere, because I have nothing in your size.
I started piano lessons at the age of 6 with Mrs Hare. She was a nice woman, probably; but in my twisted childhood memory I have cast her as a warty thug who bullied me across the hot coals of do-re-mi. I stuck it for about three months, grinding through Elementary Piano Book One until we reached Swanee River by Stephen Foster. (Foster, as it happens, was also a trespasser. Born in Pennsylvania, he never saw the actual Suwannee River – nor did he set foot in Florida, which adopted the song as its state anthem in 1935. I’m just saying.)
Now you could hardly call Swanee River a blues song – in one of its earliest editions, the score was sold as “An Ethiopian Melody” – but it’s a lot closer than the French lullabys and comical Polish dances that made up the rest of that hellish book.
The day arrived, and Mrs Hare turned the page: “Swanee River”, she read, peering through the pince-nez that I have imagined for her, 45 years later. And then, with a curl of her hairy lip, she read the subtitle: “ ‘Negro Spiritual – Slightly Syncopated.’ Oh dear me no.….”. With that, she flicked the page to Le Tigre Et L’Elephant, or some other unholy nightmare, and my relationship with formal music instruction ended.
And then one day a song came on the radio – I’m pretty sure it was “I Can’t Quit You Baby” by Willie Dixon – and my whole life changed. A wormhole opened between the minor and major third, and I stepped through into Wonderland. Since then, the blues have made me laugh, weep, dance… well, this is a family record, and I can’t tell you all the things the blues can make me do.
At the centre of this magical new kingdom, high on a hill (which shows you how little I knew back then), stood the golden city of New Orleans. In my imagination, it just straight hummed with music, romance, joy, despair; its rhythms got into my gawky English frame and, at times, made me so happy, and sad, I just didn’t know what to do with myself. New Orleans was my Jerusalem. (The question of why a soft-handed English schoolboy should be touched by music born of slavery and oppression in another city, on another continent, in another century, is for a thousand others to answer before me: from Korner to Clapton, the Rolling Stones to the Joolsing Hollands. Let’s just say it happens.)
Over the next decade, I consumed all the guitarists I could find: Charley Patton and Lead Belly, who was a genius, as was Skip James, Scrapper Blackwell, all the Blinds (Lemon Jefferson, Blake, Willie Johnson, Willie McTell), Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and so many more that we’d be here all night just naming a tenth of them.
And then there were the towering piano players: Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, Roosevelt Sykes, Leroy Carr, Jelly Roll Morton, Champion Jack Dupree, Tuts Washington, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Otis Spann, Memphis Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Allen Toussaint and Dr John.
I tended to favour the piano over the guitar because it stays in one place, which is what I like to do. Guitars appeal to the footloose, the restless. I like sitting a lot.
As for singers, that’s a huge list, with only two names on it: Ray Charles and Bessie Smith.
These great and beautiful artists lived it as they played it: all of them knew the price of a loaf of bread and most had times in their lives when they couldn’t scrape it together. They had credentials, in other words, and I respect those as much as the next man, possibly more.
But at the same time, I could never bear to see this music confined to a glass cabinet, under the heading Culture: Only To Be Handled By Elderly Black Men. That way lies the grave, for the blues and just about everything else; Shakespeare only performed at The Globe, Bach only played by Germans in tights. It’s formaldehyde, and I pray that Lead Belly will never be dead enough to warrant that.
So that’s my only credential – my one dog-eared ID card that I hope will get me through the velvet ropes and into your heart. I love this music, as authentically as I know how, and I want you to love it too. And if you get a thousandth of the pleasure from it that I’ve had, we’re all ahead of the game.
Check out more on Hugh’s upcoming CD and GET A FREE TRACK at hughlaurieblues.com
Hot damn, where do I sign up?
Great question. Just added a link to Hugh’s Blues Album page. You can pre-order the album on Amazon:
Class, in a British context, has almost nothing to do with how much money you make, and almost everything to do with your family background.
Football players from Yorkshire don’t become upper-class when they sign a contract with Arsenal.
I am a native Texan and grew up eating grits and Tobasco sauce. I also grew up enamored with the prose of P. G. Wodehouse and your sublime portrayal of one of his greatest creations, Bertie Wooster. Deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas, this young boy watched Monty Python, Dr. Who and Are You Being Served on his local PBS affiliate.
One of the greatest privileges of being a English speaker is being party to the trans-Atlantic cross-pollination of culture and ideas. I, for one, am wholeheartedly looking forward to your album. I assure you that this tradition is open to all who respect and revere it.
Did anyone complain when Ray Charles covered the Beatles? Of course not. Artists have license to take what they need.
Great insight, Andrew.
RIP Pinetop Perkins. The last of the delta bluesmen.
First off,’House’ sucks.It is as predictable and banal as actors perpetrating crap like this upon the public.
Toss this baby on top of the shit heap along with Eddie Murphy’s ‘Party all the time’ and David Soul’s ‘Dont give up on us baby’…
At least listen to it first Barry…or shut up until you have, for the record, Clint Eastwood, fine actor, director and blues pianist.
Hi Matt, congratulations on getting this interesting post.
My name is Edgard Radesca and I own a Blues & Jazz club in Brazil (www.bourbonstreet.com.br)
The Club was built after the architecture and atmosphere of New Orleans.
It was opened by BB King on Dec 13th, 1993 and since then, we’ve played a lot of fine Blues musicians like Charles Musselwhite, James Cotton, Marva Wright, Sugar Blue, Koko Taylor, Rod Piazza, Junior Wells, John Hammond, Lonnie Brooks, Bryan Lee, Little Fred King, Henry Butler, Henry Gray, John Mayall, Dr John and again, BBKing,…many times.
Besides the Club we also promote a New Orleans Music Festival (www.bourbonstreetfest.com.br ) every year.
Matt, I would like to have your help in order to get in touch with Hugh Laurie.
I liked what I heard and I would like to book him for my Festival or Club and also tour him in Brazil, Argentina and Chile…
The problem is that I couldn’t find a telephon or booking contact on his websites.
Thanks in advance for your help,
All the best, Edgard Radesca