Hugh Laurie's Blues: Olympian Gods, Music Tattoos, and Otis Spann

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Hugh Laurie
Hugh Laurie

“The blues is America’s greatest gift to the world, maybe anybody’s greatest gift to anybody…” Hugh Laurie exclaims almost immediately into our discussion. On the scale of “who’s Muddy Waters” to ten, musician, actor and occasional writer Hugh Laurie is a twelve. “It’s just a towering achievement and it’s so loved all around the world, and I’m so honored to be, in any tiny way, a part of it.”

“It’s such a thrill.”

For the last few years, Laurie has poured every measure of his time and energy into the blues. Thrilling show-goers at prestigious venues with hundred-year-old track choices, Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band, a consummately professional group of distinguished musicians steeped in brass and eclectics, have brought worldwide audiences a spirited modern-yet-nostalgic revival show that evokes the rousing ghosts of a New Orleans Storyville cathouse, playing tinny piano in the parlor.

“People that don’t necessarily know a great deal about the blues like to think that a sort of cliche is that it’s a sorrowful, mournful, ‘I woke up this morning and oh my baby’s…’ all that kind of stuff. Of course, that’s part of it, but it’s also a music of enormous joy and wit and sex and violence, and I think all human life is in this music, and that’s what I want the show to be.

I want it to make people laugh and cry, if we can, and and for people to be moved and as thrilled as I am about this music, which is such a huge part of my life and the world’s life. I can’t even imagine what the world would be like without this music. I’m not even sure it’s a world I want to live in.”

Laurie wistfully admits a hard truth about his music. It’s a statement that’s comfortably definitive of the type of music he plays, and the caliber of musicians he plays with. “You’ll probably notice that most of my musician heroes, they died a while ago, sadly.” The lifelong blues musician ended his longstanding job famously playing Dr. House on television two years ago, focusing his professional aspirations on the music he holds close to his heart — much of which is approaching eighty years old. “This is the music I’ve loved since I was a kid, and the music I will always love. So even if I wind up playing to three men and a dog in a bar somewhere, I feel like I can’t lose, because this is what I love to do and this is the music that I love, and obviously, I hope other people will love it too. But if they don’t, I’m still happy.”

“I’m still happy just to be listening to it, playing it, talking about it, being a part of it… that’s enough for me. More than enough.”

New Orleans and it’s earth-changing music has long lived in Laurie’s imagination; a place he frequently calls up when his fingers touch the keys. He gushes about Jelly Roll Morton being one of the “Olympian Gods” of music, Jon Cleary being “colossal”, and goes on to discuss what he affectionately describes, still with a mixture of disbelief and terror, as the proudest moment of his life. If any New Orleans music fan could imagine the proudest moment of their lives, that moment would almost certainly involve Dr John.

Related: Pick up Dr. John’s New “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch” on Amazon

[pullquote]“I can’t even imagine what the world would be like without this music. I’m not even sure it’s a world I want to live in.”[/pullquote]When he made the decision to lay bare his musical soul and create an album, his amor for the Crescent City was his muse. For Let Them Talk, he called on jazz great Joe Henry and famed Orleans legend Alan Toussaint, who was a surprise, Laurie admits in a timid moment of self-deprecation. “I said, ‘well you can can ask, but why in the hell would he do that?’ I couldn’t believe it when he said yes.” For track six, the British musician turned to Dr John, a man that he calls his greatest living hero.

“It was simultaneously the most thrilling and the most terrifying — well, it was probably thrilling because it was terrifying…” the pianist says about playing with one of the most famed New Orleans musicians in history“To actually accompany Dr. John, who is my greatest living hero, as a piano player, as a writer, as a musician, as a singer too… It was absolutely thrilling. I’m going to be honest with you. At the end of the session, I went out, I got into my car, and I sat at the wheel and I cried.

We were actually both playing in the city of Perth in Western Australia and I went backstage after his sound check and I kissed the ring,” laments Laurie with a touch of both adulation and reverence. “I bowed appropriately and I asked his permission. I said, ‘is it ok if we, uuh… do you mind if we have a go at Such a Night?’, which has always been a towering song in my life. And he said, ‘you go ahead man, cuz you a bad motherfucker.’ And to be called a bad motherfucker by Dr. John, that may be the proudest moment of my life.”

“In fact, I might even get that tattooed on my… uuh… well, I won’t tell you where.”

Though his music for the past three years has consisted largely of covers and traditional New Orleans savior faire, one of his most powerful blues influences was a man Laurie found buried “deep in the mix” of a record while studying the Chicago blues decades ago. “I discovered Otis Spann back in the day of wanting to be a guitar hero. I was listening to Muddy Waters and was just blown away by Muddy’s guitar playing, but I was also intrigued by this piano player… he was very far in the background, but I kept thinking, ‘who is that guy? And how is he doing what he’s doing?’ The more I listened to it, the closer I got to the piano playing as opposed to the guitar playing.”

Spann was a Mississippi native who passed away somewhat unexpectedly at only 46. His 1960 Otis Spann is The Blues has come to be known as required blues listening, and the Muddy pianist that preceded Pinetop Perkins was just beginning to be widely regarded for his genius when a grave cancer diagnosis ended his career, and shortly after, his life. His piano legacy has been widely influential to musicians everywhere.

Ever a student of the blues, Laurie is still immersing himself in the deep cuts, the best albums, and the lands that gave birth to America’s music. His upcoming stop on the blues trail, as many a blues traveler can relate to, is a pilgrimage to the land where the blues began; the Mississippi Delta. “One of these days I’m gonna do the classic motorcycle trip, and do the odyssey and go to the source… the delta is the source of the music. It’s something that I have to do. it’s something that I promised myself, and something that I will do before I’m too old to swing a leg over a motorcycle. I’ll do that.”

Laurie talks humbly about playing all covers and traditional folk — he has yet to release an original composition. Instead, his repertoire of blues standards, early jazz tracks, and other Depression-era curiosity store picks have served a dual purpose: letting the renaissance actor, writer and musician hone his professional image and skill on the music that he knows the best, and introducing deep musical cuts, re-recorded in the modern era by a contemporary artisan, to thousands of concert-goers every week. “At some point I am going to have to stick my neck out there and confront the world with some of my own songs, which is something that I’ve been avoiding for a long time,” he allows with a hint of discomfort. “I never felt the need to sort of show the world much of it, because my view has always been that there’s so much buried treasure out there that some of the people know very well but plenty of people don’t. For example, a Mississippi Sheiks song that probably hasn’t been recorded since about 1930, and there’s so many of those songs that deserve to be heard.”

The question on the minds of some blues fans, however, is if Laurie’s just another tourist in the music, another actor-turned-musician, (“one of those pampered ninnies,” he playfully wrote on his first release) or if he’s truly a lifer in the blues. The answer lies somewhere between his star-struck discussion on Trombone Shorty, who he says, with a curious degree of seriousness, he bows down and worships, and his impassioned talk about Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress recordings. Ultimately, Laurie finally has the ability to spend his time playing the music he adores with like-minded artists and talk about his passion each day and every day. Who would give that up? “If people will let me… if you’ll let me, if the audience will let me, this is what I love to do. This is the most thrilling adventure I’ve ever been on.”

“I’m so happy, I don’t even, I can’t even find the words to describe it. It is just… ridiculous how much fun I’m having. I feel like I ought to kind of keep my mouth shut, because the point of the show is that the audience is going to have fun. I’ll have fun if the audience has fun, but the truth is, I’ll have fun anyways. It’s just the best adventure I’ve ever had.”

In the end, his set, his show, his albums, and his music exist, like so much of the best blues, for the most important reason first: to continue the musical legacy of the greats. “If some people… even a few people, a small number of people get interested in Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton and listen to them and find out more because of this, because of what we’re doing, my god, what a thing, what a… I’m prouder of that than almost anything.”

Hugh Laurie Blues Official Website