Singer, songwriter, record company executive
As a singer, songwriter, and record company executive, Denise LaSalle has made a lasting impact on R&B music. Her hit single, “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” was certified gold in 1971. She also wrote hits for Bill Coday, the Sequins, and Z.Z. Hill. With her husband, James Wolfe, Jr., LaSalle continues to be an active part of the R&B and gospel music community.
LaSalle was born Denise Allen on July 16, 1939, in LeFlore County, Mississippi, the youngest daughter of eight children born to Nathaniel and Nancy Allen. When she was seven years old, her family moved to Belzoni, Mississippi, in Humphreys County, where she helped the family pick cotton. Raised as a Baptist, she sang in the church choir and listened to Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts. The family home in Belzoni was also across the street from a juke joint, or roadhouse, where a lot of music was played.
LaSalle loved to read, and was determined to get an education. At 13, she moved to Chicago to live with her oldest brother, where she attended night school, and eventually earned a general educational development (GED), or high school equivalency, diploma. As a bit of a dreamer, she also loved to write stories. “All these daydreams would come to me and I’d say, ’I’m going to write some stories. I’m going to write my life.’ I’d think about what I’m going to do and I’d write it, you know,” she told Ladies of Soul. “Finally one day I got it into my head that I could write a story and send it in to a magazine. So I sent one to True Confessions, and one to Tan magazine, and I had both of them published in the issues.” She bought a typewriter and kept writing. After eight rejections, however, she became discouraged and quit.
She continued, though, to write poems and set them to music. “[F]or some reason they would come to me as a song,” she continued in Ladies of Soul. “I could do all this rhyme and stuff, but then I could hear the lyric in my head with the melody.” She also began singing with an all-female gospel-singing group called the Sacred Five, which performed throughout the Chicago area.
While in Chicago, she would often attend the Regal Theatre. “You name it, I was there, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington, anybody. Whoever was there, I was there looking… And sometimes two or three times a week I would go.” She soaked up the performances like a sponge.
She held a number of odd jobs in Chicago, including pressing pants at a dry cleaners, checking groceries, and working as a cake decorator and bakery clerk. But it was her job as a barmaid at Mix’s Lounge in Chicago where she made her first connections in the music business. Here she met Billy “the Kid” Emerson in 1963, who listened to her songs and recorded them. He took the demo to some Chess Records executives who liked what they heard and signed her to a one-year
Born Denise Allen on July 16, 1939, in LeFlore County, MS; married Bill Jones, 1969; divorced, 1974; married James Wolfe, Jr., 1977; two children.
Singing career began while she was working as a barmaid and met Billy “the Kid” Emerson, who recorded her songs, 1963; founded Crajon Productions with Bill Jones; released hit song “A Love Reputation,” but earned greater success with the gold-certified “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” 1971; released first album on ABC Records, Second Breath,1976; released The Bi⋆⋆⋆ Is Bad,1977, and Under the Influence,1978; ABC was sold to MCA Records, released Unwrapped,1979, I’m So Hot,1980, and Guaranteed,1981, before leaving MCA; opened a nightclub called the Players Place, in Jackson, TN; released Lady in the Street on Malaco Records, 1983; with James Wolfe, Jr., founded Wolfe Communications, Inc. and started WFKX-FM in Jackson, 1984; operated Denise LaSalle’s Chique Boutique & Wigs Store, 1989-95; released Smokin’ in Bed,1997, and God’s Got My Back,1999.
Addresses: Business—Wolfe Enterprises, 438 East Main St., Jackson, TN 38301. Booking— Ordena Booking Agency, phone: (731) 424-1383 or (731) 267-1003. Management—Rodgers Redding & Associates Entertainment Agency, phone: (478) 742-8771. Website— Denise LaSalle Official Website: http://www.deniselasalle.com.
contract. Although Emerson acted as her manager, he was never under contract. Chess Records never did make a recording with her, but Emerson helped her gain exposure by entering her in talent competitions. She began to win, and this boosted her confidence. Soon she began to receive offers to sing professionally.
In 1967 she recorded “A Love Reputation” with Emerson’s Tarpon Records. It was at this point that Emerson suggested she change her name to LaSalle. When Aretha Franklin’s hit, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” was number one on the charts in Chicago, LaSalle’s “A Love Reputation” was number two.
Her relationship with Emerson worked well until she landed a spot on the Jackie Wilson show at the Regal Theatre. In negotiating the deal, Emerson insisted that his own band perform as her backup. These demands made the deal fall through and LaSalle realized that she would have to succeed on her own. She severed her ties with Emerson.
LaSalle met Bill Jones in 1967 and married him in 1969. Together they founded Crajon Productions, a music publishing business that also incorporated three labels: Gold Star, Parka, and Crajon itself. The company was based in Chicago, but did most of its recording at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Recording Studio in Memphis. Besides recording LaSalle, Crajon also recorded for Bill Coday, whose hit, “Get Your Lie Straight” hit number 14 on the R&B charts. Another group, the Sequins, recorded “Hey Romeo,” which became a number 34 R&B hit. LaSalle had written both songs.
Her song “Hung Up, Strung Out” caught the attention of Westbound Records, who signed her to a contract and sent her to Memphis to record “Trapped by a Thing Called Love.” At the time, she was working at the Dell Farms supermarket in Chicago ringing groceries. She took a one-month leave of absence to make the recording. Happily, it was more successful than she had anticipated. “That was the beginning,” she reminisced in Ladies of Soul. “I was very pleased. But from the day that I cut that tune, I never went back… I knew from the time I left that studio that that was the beginning and I never went back.” In November of 1971 “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” became a certified gold record.
For a while LaSalle continued to balance her singing career with her business interests at Crajon. By 1974, however, her marriage to Bill Jones was dissolving; she gave up the business and moved to Memphis. She signed with ABC Records in 1976 and began a relationship with James “Super” Wolfe, Jr., the number-one disc jockey in Jackson, Tennessee. They were married in 1977.
Second Breath, her first album for ABC, received only marginal attention. However, her second release, The Bi*** Is Bad, was a big success. The company was in financial difficulty when she recorded Under the Influence in 1978, and was sold to MCA Records. LaSalle recorded Unwrapped, I’m So Hot, and Guaranteed before ending her relationship with MCA in 1981. Then, sensing that her singing career was winding down, she and Wolfe opened up a nightclub in Jackson, Tennessee, called the Players Place.
In the early 1980s Malaco Records asked her to write a song for Z.Z.Hill; it became his next hit: “Someone Else is Steppin’ In.” Malaco then convinced LaSalle to record again and her album, Lady in the Street,“put her back into the market.” The songs on this album, particularly her all-time bestseller, “Down Home Blues” were written for mature audiences, and were considered by some to be too suggestive, or even downright raunchy.
In 1984 LaSalle and Wolfe founded Wolfe Communications, Inc., and started up WFKX-FM in Jackson, Tennessee. LaSalle’s business instincts also led her to open up Denise LaSalle’s Chique Boutique & Wigs Store, which she operated from 1989-95. In 1996 Wolfe Communications, Inc. acquired WZDQ-FM and WJAK-AM, a rock station and a gospel station, respectively.
In 1997 she released Smokin’ in Bed. “Produced and mostly written by the voluptuous vocalist, ’Smokin’ in Bed’ ain’t talkin’ ’bout lighting cigars in the boudoir,” noted Billboard. ’The result is a steaming good time for mature audiences interested in knockin’ a few back to some serious guitar picking.” Also in 1997 Wolfe felt called into the ministry, and in turn, LaSalle decided to branch out into recording gospel music. In 1999 she released God’s Got My Back, and received attention as a crossover artist in both R&B and gospel.
On the night of September 11, 2001, after the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States, LaSalle wrote the song “There’s No Separation,” about the need for prayer in a country that claims to separate church and state. “I watched President Bush on television asking, even pleading to America’s citizens to join him in prayer for the victims and families of the terrorist attacks on airliners in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the Pennsylvania countryside,” she said on her official website. “I cried … oh, so now it’s okay to pray!”
LaSalle and Wolfe are respected citizens in Jackson, Tennessee, where they have lived together since 1977. Wolfe has served on the city council, and both have been involved in charitable events and efforts in community improvement.
Trapped by a Thing Called Love, Westbound, 1971.
On the Loose, Westbound, 1972.
Here I Am Again, Westbound, 1973.
Second Breath, ABC, 1976.
The Bi*** is Bad, ABC, 1977.
Under the Influence, ABC, 1978.
Unwrapped, MCA, 1979.
I’m So Hot, MCA, 1980.
Guaranteed, MCA, 1981.
Lady in the Street, Malaco, 1983.
Right Place, Right Time, Malaco, 1984.
Love Talkin’, Malaco, 1985.
Rain and Fire, Malaco, 1986.
It’s Lyin’ Time Again, Malaco, 1987.
Hittin’ where it Hurts, Malaco, 1989.
Still Trapped, Malaco, 1990.
Smokin’ in Bed, Malaco, 1997.
Trapped, Malaco, 1997.
God’s Got My Back, Malaco, 1999.
This Real Women, Ordena, 2000.
There’s No Separation, Ordena, 2001.
Freeland, David, Ladies of Soul, University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
Billboard, August 16, 1997, p. 20.
“Denise LaSalle,” Blues Foundation, http://www.blues.org/history/womenhistory (March 31, 2003).
“Denise LaSalle,” Booking Entertainment, http://www.bookingentertainment.com/DeniseJ-asalle.htm (March 31, 2003).
Denise LaSalle Official Website, http://www.deniselasalle.com (March 31, 2003).
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