‘Memphis’ belle; Cyndi Lauper Sings the Blues

'Memphis’ belle; Cyndi Lauper Sings the Blues
June 22, 2010
By Jed Gottlieb
The Edge

If you haven’t listened to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in a while, you probably remember it as a catchy, corny piece of pop squealed in a thick Queens accent.

Listen again.

Cyndi Lauper’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, it’s quite stunning.

The ’80s icon, who plays the House of Blues on Saturday, often sounds as if she’s making it up as she goes. She’s not. From the yowls on six-times platinum “She’s So Unusual” to the hollers on her rootsy new covers album, “Memphis Blues,” Lauper’s a clever, calculating vocalist.

“I studied jazz when I first started singing,” Lauper said from her New York home. “My teacher would have me sing all of Billie’s (Holiday) vocals, then all of Lester Young’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.”

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Whether it’s “Girls” or “True Colors” or her new version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” Lauper always searches for the rhythmic center of the song, the best perch to engage in a call-and-response with her musicians.

On “Memphis Blues,” she’s enlisted some storied fellow-searchers to interact with, including B.B. King, Jonny Lang, Ann Peebles and Charlie Musselwhite. But it’s the guys in the rhythmic trenches who are the unsung stars, Memphis soul sessions aces like guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts, keyboardist Lester Snell and drummer Steve Potts.

“Some of these guys are from the Stax Records days and lots of them played with Isaac (Hayes) and (Al Green producer)Willie Mitchell, too,” Lauper said. “Working with them, well, it was kind of fantastic.”

But no one understood her call-and-response credo like New Orleans producer and piano wizard Allen Toussaint.

“He played and I looked at him and said, ‘Can we do the whole album together?’ ” Lauper said.

They couldn’t. Since Toussaint’s album with Elvis Costello in 2006 he’s been busy enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. But he is making a cameo or two later on the Lauper tour.

“There’s something about him that’s like voodoo,” she said. “When he plays it’s magical and it makes you fall into the center of the rhythm. The descending keyboard riff in ‘Shattered Dreams’ that he plays especially put me right in the center of the song.

“It was a strange experience,” Lauper continued. “because I didn’t know who I was and I didn’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 what’s going on in that moment of time.”

And you just thought it was about cute lyrics, dyed hair and a New Yawk accent.
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