Let Them Talk
Let us stipulate up front that Hugh Laurie is an insanely talented individual. He’s a comedian, a comic actor, a dramatic actor, a comedy writer, a novelist, plays piano, guitar, and percussion, and, apparently, deep down in his soul, according to the liner notes of Let Them Talk, he’s also an 80-year old, gravelly-voiced Negro ex-sharecropper blues singer.
Sure. Why not?
Most of us think he’s a dyspeptic American medical miracle man (hearing his acceptance speech for his Emmy win as Dr. House, my ex-wife, who knew Hugh Laurie only from House and Stuart Little, asked, “Why is he putting on an English accent?”), so why couldn’t this British born, Oxford and Cambridge educated actor also be Jellyroll Morton?
In Let Them Talk, Hugh Laurie sings the blues, and if he ain’t Jellyroll Morton (and who could be?), he dives into these classic numbers as though he wished he could be. “These great and beautiful artists lived it as they played it,” Laurie writes in the liner notes. “But at the same time, I could never bear to see this music confined to a glass cabinet, under the heading Culture: Only To Be Handled By Elderly Black Men. That way lies the grave, for the blues and just about everything else: Shakespeare only performed at The Globe, Bach only played by Germans in tights. It’s formaldehyde, and I pray that Leadbelly will never be dead enough to warrant that.”
Laurie offers his credentials for playing the blues: a lifelong love for the music and its performers, “I love this music, as authentically as I know how.” The love is there, and combined with some of the abovementioned insane talent, Let Them Talk comes across with some new takes on the old blues worth listening to.
“St. James Infirmary Blues” opens with a quiet, almost symphonic rendition of this great, mournful song that eventually slides into a more traditional take that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The high points include “Swanee River,” the Stephen Foster classic that Laurie weaves with the swinging, piano pounding verve of a Jerry Lee Lewis and Craig Eastman’s haunting violin accompaniment; the energetic power of Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot”; the lazy Ferdinand Joseph Morton composition, “Winin’ Boys Blues,” Cosimo Matassa’s “Tipitina,” and the simple, crisp pickings on Arthur Phelps’ “Police Dog Blues.”
Joining Laurie are such guest vocalists as Dr. John on the Harry Creamer and Turner Layton classic “After You’ve Gone,” which pays no uncertain homage to the 1928 Bessie Smith and later Mac Rebennack recordings; Irma Thomas on the soulful “John Henry,” and Sir Tom Jones (yes, that Tom Jones), plaintively begging “Baby Please Make A Change,” by Armenta Bo, Carter Chatmon/Alonzo Lonnie Chatmon.
For the most part, Laurie’s voice carries him through, but polish and sophistication were never a perquisite for singing the blues. We can forgive him if he has to reach and sometimes strain to hit that note; the blues are, after all, about struggle and pain. But like the first time you heard Hugh Laurie speak without an American accent or play the piano, you’ll be delighted and surprised by what this talented individual can do. Kind of makes you wonder what he has to sing the blues about.
Paul Kupperberg is, deep down in his soul, an 80-year old phlegmy-voiced Jewish comedy writer. He also writes the critically acclaimed Life With Archie Magazine for Archie Comics and is the author of the mystery novel, The Same Old Story (available as an eBook on Amazon.com).