Elise LeGrow's 'Playing Chess' Honors Blues And R&B Greats

Feb 17, 2018
Originally published on February 17, 2018 8:08 am

Chess Records is an American institution. Founded in Chicago by Phil and Leonard Chess in the 1950s, it became the label that launched Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. Now, Canadian singer Elise LeGrow is taking on the label's catalog on her debut album: Playing Chess features covers of songs made famous by Chuck Berry, Etta James, Sugar Pie DeSanto, The Moonglows and more.

"Etta James has been one of my favorite singers for a very long time and, of course, I was aware of Chuck Berry's hits. But I didn't realize that the common thread there was Chess," LeGrow tells NPR's Scott Simon.

The album features guest appearances from the Dap-Kings and, on the track "Long, Lonely Nights," Questlove and Captain Kirk Douglas from The Roots. Questlove's father, Lee Andrews, co-wrote that ballad back in 1965.

As she put together the track list, LeGrow says, old memories collided with some new surprises. Now 30, she'd heard Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" for the first time as a child, playing behind Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction's iconic dance sequence. When she put the song on her covers shortlist, her producer revealed he had written an original melody for the lyrics 40 years ago. Their combined efforts resulted in something all LeGrow's own: "I've had some people say it's completely unrecognizable until they hear the line, 'C'est la vie,' " she says.

LeGrow is already looking ahead to her next release, but she says she'll still want her sound to stay in the tradition of the greats she emulates on Playing Chess: "a live band and a girl in a room."

Playing Chess is available now from S-Curve Records. Listen to the full interview at the audio link.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF BO DIDDLEY SONG, "WHO DO YOU LOVE?")

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Chess Records catalogue is an American institution. It was founded in Chicago by Phil and Leonard Chess in the 1950s and became the label that launched Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO DO YOU LOVE?")

BO DIDDLEY: (Singing) I walk 47 miles of barbed wire. I use a cobra snake for a necktie.

SIMON: Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love?" was part of the Chess Records rock 'n' roll canon. Of course, it was later covered by The Doors. And now there's a new album of music from the Chess catalogue by Elise LeGrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO DO YOU LOVE?")

ELISE LEGROW: (Singing) I use a cobra snake for a necktie. I got a brand new house on the roadside made of rattlesnake hide. I got a brand new chimney made on top out of a human skull. Come walk with me, baby. Tell me - who do you love? Who do you love?

SIMON: The album is called "Playing Chess." It's Elise LeGrow's debut album. She joins us now from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Thanks so much for being with us.

LEGROW: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Did you listen to the Chess records growing up?

LEGROW: You know, I did, and I didn't realize that I was listening to Chess (laughter). Definitely, I mean, Etta James has been one of my favorite singers for a very long time. And, of course, you know, I was aware of Chuck Berry's hits, but I didn't realize that the common thread there was Chess.

SIMON: You have some special guests on this album. We want to listen to a track that has Questlove and Captain Kirk Douglas from The Roots. This is "Long And Lonely Nights" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG, LONELY NIGHTS")

LEGROW: (Singing) Long - long and lonely nights. I cry my eyes out over you, wondering if I did right and why you left me with a broken heart. Oh, long - long and lonely nights.

SIMON: I gather Questlove has a special connection to this song.

LEGROW: He does. His father was Lee Andrews of Lee Andrews & The Hearts, and he wrote that song. And, I mean, when we were first talking about song selection, my producer, Steve Greenberg, threw out the possibility that, oh, well, you know, this is - this is - you know, Questlove's dad wrote this song, and I wonder if we reached out to him, maybe he'd come in and play drums on it. And, you know, being a relatively unknown Canadian artist, I did not think that the likelihood of that was very high, so it was really a thrill to have him involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG, LONELY NIGHTS")

LEGROW: (Singing) What's left for me to face? Oh, long - long and lonely nights.

SIMON: What reaches you, in particular, about this music?

LEGROW: Well, honestly, I've been singing music from this era since I was a little girl. There's something about this early rock 'n' roll and R&B that's just always had a place in my heart. I feel things deeply, and these songs are - you know, a lot of them are quite emotionally charged.

And where there's less emotion, there's more narrative. So there's always something that you can sort of latch onto. And I am a songwriter, but I'm really a singer first. So you know, trying to find songs that tell that kind of compelling story or weave a melody like that - you know, it's hard to find these days.

SIMON: Etta James is a big influence, as you said.

LEGROW: Absolutely. And I was so thrilled to find a song of hers that had not been covered to death, you know, because obviously, her big hits - there's a million covers of them. And I really wanted to try to find something unique here, and I think we did that in "Can't Shake It," which was a song that she recorded but that was never actually released.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T SHAKE IT")

LEGROW: (Singing) You know that little boy put some kissing on me, and I can't seem to shake it.

SIMON: That's a great song.

LEGROW: You know, I love that song. That's one of my favorites on the album, especially this little whoa, whoa part (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T SHAKE IT")

LEGROW: (Singing) Whoa.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) Whoa.

LEGROW: (Singing) Whoa.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) Whoa.

LEGROW: (Singing) Whoa.

SIMON: I bet it's going to be covered plenty from now on.

LEGROW: Probably. Yeah. I mean, I'm a fan of it, as - and I had never heard it. So I hope that, you know, there'll be some other girls out there that are big Etta fans that will hear this song and be singing it in their bedrooms or in their cars, or, you know, even better, covering it themselves.

SIMON: What about "You Could Never Tell" (ph) - or "You Never Can Tell?"

LEGROW: Well, this song has a really interesting story because, you know, I think, like most people my generation, my first experience with the song was that famous scene in "Pulp Fiction" with Uma and John doing the Twist in that diner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU NEVER CAN TELL")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well.

LEGROW: And I fell in love with the song when I saw that film. So when it came around to researching for this record, obviously, "You Never Can Tell" was near the top of the list to begin with, but it sort of moved up a few notches once my producer Steve in New York - he revealed that 40 years prior, having never heard Chuck Berry's recording, he stumbled upon a print of the lyric.

And he wrote the melody that you hear on my album 40 years ago, just on his acoustic guitar. And then this melody swam around in his head for decades. And when it came around to doing this record, he sort of said, hey, you know, no pressure...

SIMON: (Laughter).

LEGROW: ...But I wrote this melody 40 years ago (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU NEVER CAN TELL")

LEGROW: (Singing) But when Pierre found work, the little money coming worked out well. C'est la vie, say the old folks. It goes to show you never can tell. Oh.

SIMON: Totally different song in your hands.

LEGROW: Absolutely. Well, it's - I've had some people say that, you know, it's completely unrecognizable until they hear the line, c'est la vie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU NEVER CAN TELL")

BERRY: (Singing) C'est la vie, say the old folks.

LEGROW: (Singing) You never can tell.

BERRY: (Singing) C'est la vie, say the old folks.

SIMON: Now that you've done your debut album, what do you learn from the Chess people, or maybe Etta James specifically, that you bring to your own work, do you think - or try to?

LEGROW: Well, I can already see some of the benefit of having studied this material on my own because I've been writing my own material, too, and that's the next frontier. Certainly, my next album will continue with that sort of story of a live band and a girl in a room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELISE LEGROW SONG. "HOLD ON")

SIMON: Elise LeGrow. Her debut album, "Playing Chess." Thanks so much for being with us.

LEGROW: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")

LEGROW: (Singing) Don't you know it hurts me so when you let go, my love? The damage has been done. When you've gone I'll be alone, so please hold on. Keep telling, the battle has been won. Don't give in. Our love will be. And once again, as lovers, we will be as one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.