Aretta Woodruff – A Tribute to Denise LaSalle
Music Maker Foundation
10 Tracks – 32 minutes
Birmingham’s Aretta Woodruff got her start as many blues artists have by singing in the Hopewell Baptist Church Choir. Her vocal prowess was quickly identified, and she grew her musical fame in the area’s music scene. Aretta’s ties to Denise LaSalle started as she became an opening act for Denise for several years. Denise became her mentor as she recognized the younger woman’s talents. Denise frequently proclaimed to Aretta, “Girl, you sing my stuff better than I do.” In 2017, Aretta suffered a stroke from which he has subsequently recovered. Aretta was inducted into the Alabama Blues Hall of Fame in 2018 and was selected as Blues Female Artist of the Year at the 2020 Alabama Blues Awards.
Denise Lasalle (nee Ora Denise Allen) was the youngest of seven children born July 16, 1934, to a family of sharecroppers. Denise picked cotton starting at age 7 and did other labor to help support her family. At age 13, she moved to Chicago to live with her brother. She released her first record in 1971 and was quickly recognized for her songwriting ability. Numerous albums and songs followed with two hits, “Now Run and Tell That”, and “Man Sized Job”, falling into the Top Ten on Billboard’s R&B charts. Barbara Mandrell recorded one of LaSalle’s songs, “Married, But Not to Each Other” that is on Barbara’s best of album. Denise died on January 8, 2018. Her family honored Aretta by announcing that she should continue to carry on Denise’s legacy.
For this album, Aretta selected songs from LaSalle’s early catalog of perhaps lesser-known songs. She chose songs that brings back the sounds of 70’s style funk, blues & R&B. Her band for the album includes Norman Garner on guitar, Eric Rhoads on guitar and bass, Dan Hector on keyboards, Tony Grady on bass, Ardie Dean on percussion, Dan Bowyer on trombone, Ken Waters on trumpet, Steve Motz on baritone sax with backing vocals by Tracy Jackson, Yasmine LeBrun, Summer Baruda, Natrickle Louissaint, and Neeve Weinberger.
Aretta opens the album with “Blues Reputation”, a song she felt was appropriate for her tribute with some modification to directly honor Denise. Subsequent songs are noted to generally follow the original music delivered on LaSalle’s recordings only with Aretta’s vocals replacing that of Denise. LaSalle’s “May the Funk Be with You” delivers the obvious dance vibe. “Love Is a Five Letter Word” is an R&B classic styled song with the horns and female chorus responding to Aretta’s calls. On “I’m Satisfied”, her voice croons softly as she indicates that “true love will never die”.
“There Ain’t Enough Hate Around” from 1973 was written in the spirit of the civil rights protests of the era and perhaps is now again pertinent with the rise of hate crimes in our modern era. Next, she urges her lover to “Keep It Coming”. “Hit and Run” is another example of 70’s styled R&B.
“Holding Hands with the Blues” does move into a horn-driven blues style. It determines that all you “middle- class people who think that blues is for those who live in poverty”, but “when your health care fails, your lover puts you down” you have the blues and “the blues will never let you down”. She advises the men in the audience of “What It Takes to Get a Good Woman” and what it takes to keep her. Aretta concludes the album with her version of Denise’s first single release from 1971, “Trapped by a Thing Called Love”. She says she is “sinking down when he does not call”.
I will openly admit that I am not familiar with the original songs cited here and thus cannot provide a true comparison between Aretta and Denise’s presentations. The songs certainly sound like they come from the 70’s as intended and perhaps bring back memories of the era of The Supremes and other familiar female groups. Here, while the songs are pleasant, they seem slightly lackluster to me. But those who were fans of the era and particularly LaSalle, may find joy in the reminiscence of the music.
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