â€˜Memphisâ€™ belle; Cyndi Lauper Sings the Blues
'Memphisâ€™ belle; Cyndi Lauper Sings the Blues
June 22, 2010
By Jed Gottlieb
If you havenâ€™t listened to â€œGirls Just Want to Have Funâ€ in a while, you probably remember it as a catchy, corny piece of pop squealed in a thick Queens accent.
Cyndi Lauperâ€™s signature tune is a vocal tour de force: she punches out squeaky, stylized, totally-under-control staccato verses; she croons choruses full of high-register runs with confidence. Really, itâ€™s quite stunning.
The â€™80s icon, who plays the House of Blues on Saturday, often sounds as if sheâ€™s making it up as she goes. Sheâ€™s not. From the yowls on six-times platinum â€œSheâ€™s So Unusualâ€ to the hollers on her rootsy new covers album, â€œMemphis Blues,â€ Lauperâ€™s a clever, calculating vocalist.
â€œI studied jazz when I first started singing,â€ Lauper said from her New York home. â€œMy teacher would have me sing all of Billieâ€™s (Holiday) vocals, then all of Lester Youngâ€™s solos so I could understand their answer-and-response relationship, and how to stand firmly in the center so I could respond to anyone in the band.â€
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Whether itâ€™s â€œGirlsâ€ or â€œTrue Colorsâ€ or her new version of Robert Johnsonâ€™s â€œCrossroads,â€ Lauper always searches for the rhythmic center of the song, the best perch to engage in a call-and-response with her musicians.
On â€œMemphis Blues,â€ sheâ€™s enlisted some storied fellow-searchers to interact with, including B.B. King, Jonny Lang, Ann Peebles and Charlie Musselwhite. But itâ€™s the guys in the rhythmic trenches who are the unsung stars, Memphis soul sessions aces like guitarist Charles â€œSkipâ€ Pitts, keyboardist Lester Snell and drummer Steve Potts.
â€œSome of these guys are from the Stax Records days and lots of them played with Isaac (Hayes) and (Al Green producer)Willie Mitchell, too,â€ Lauper said. â€œWorking with them, well, it was kind of fantastic.â€
But no one understood her call-and-response credo like New Orleans producer and piano wizard Allen Toussaint.
â€œHe played and I looked at him and said, â€˜Can we do the whole album together?â€™ â€ Lauper said.
They couldnâ€™t. Since Toussaintâ€™s album with Elvis Costello in 2006 heâ€™s been busy enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. But he is making a cameo or two later on the Lauper tour.
â€œThereâ€™s something about him thatâ€™s like voodoo,â€ she said. â€œWhen he plays itâ€™s magical and it makes you fall into the center of the rhythm. The descending keyboard riff in â€˜Shattered Dreamsâ€™ that he plays especially put me right in the center of the song.
â€œIt was a strange experience,â€ Lauper continued. â€œbecause I didnâ€™t know who I was and I didnâ€™t care. Faces and things were going through my head as I rode this wave of music. But I had to keep listening. You always have to listen and respond to whatâ€™s going on in that moment of time.â€
And you just thought it was about cute lyrics, dyed hair and a New Yawk accent.