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Always The Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story

Authors: Denise LaSalle with David Whiteis

Release date: June 2020

The University of Chicago Press Review by Linda Cain

Tina Turner was the subject of What’s Love Got To Do With It, the 1993 critically-acclaimed Hollywood bio-pic starring Angela Bassett. After reading Always The Queen: The Denise LaSalle Story, it becomes apparent that this soul-blues star’s rags-to-riches life story would make for a compelling and entertaining musical film as well.

But unlike Tina, Ms. LaSalle was wise enough to extract herself from a toxic relationship early in her career. Unfortunately, her ex-boyfriend and former manager conned her into letting him into her apartment and he nearly beat her to death in a jealous rage.

Denise survived and learned from the tragic incident to never again mix business with her relationships. The only person allowed to make business and career decisions for Denise LaSalle was Denise LaSalle. And happily Denise’s new manager turned out to be a very smart woman, indeed.

She was smart enough to stay away from Ike Turner, too.

A mutual friend introduced her to Ike and they visited him at his combined recording studio and apartment. She recalled, “That man had so many freaky ideas and crazy shit! I was thinking, how in the world did Tina stay with this crazy man?” She describes how he had hidden cameras in his guest bedroom so he could peep in on the action. “Man, Ike was something else. No, let me rephrase that: Ike was from somewhere else. He was not of this planet,” LaSalle declared.

Unlike Tina Turner, LaSalle never crossed over to pop music and white audiences as an artist herself. But as a prolific songwriter, her material has been recorded by a wide variety of artists, such as country star Barbara Mandrell who had a hit with “Married, but Not to Each Other.”

Even Bob Dylan is a loyal fan who once asked LaSalle to write a song for him. As Ms. LaSalle recounts in her book, he knew the words to nearly all of her songs.

LaSalle was an internationally known successful singer/songwriter and entertainer as well as: a record label owner, music publisher and producer, restaurant and nightclub/casino owner, clothing and wig boutique owner, co-owner with her husband of the first black-owned radio station in west Tennessee, founder of charitable organizations and more.

Throughout her long career, LaSalle had many close encounters with other stars in the business. And she became very good friends with some of them. In Always The Queen, LaSalle doesn’t hesitate to name drop and offer up anecdotes that are sometimes unflattering, but mostly complimentary: Lonnie Brooks, Gene Chandler, Bill Withers, Latimore, Johnnie Taylor, Millie Jackson, Bobby Rush, Lou Rawls, Z.Z. Hill, Michael Jackson and the list goes on. She knew them all.

At one point in her life she found herself in a romance with a debonair wealthy jet setter, who turned out to be a bank robber wanted by the FBI. Now that’s the kind of story to put into a Hollywood movie.

On stage she was a raunchy, raconteur of relationships. Off stage LaSalle was a down-home earth mother, who loved and adopted many children. She also loved to cook and go to church on Sunday.

LaSalle came from humble roots, the daughter of sharecroppers.

Born Ora Dee Allen on July 16, 1934 in LeFlore County, outside of Sidon, Mississippi, LaSalle recalls her childhood in vivid detail. She actually can remember exactly how many fruit trees her family grew on their little truck patch. Despite the hard working family’s rural poverty, the children were well fed and well dressed. Her mom was a talented seamstress who created attractive clothes out of flour sacks for the children. At a young age she learned to pick 200 pounds of cotton a day and fill sacks faster than her siblings.

Her parents decided to leave the hard labor and rural life behind and moved to Belzoni in 1947. It was there that a teenaged Ora Dee was introduced to music lessons, books, newspapers, writing, arts and culture. She got married and left home for Chicago while still a young teenager in order to escape Jim Crow laws and have a career in music.

LaSalle shared and entrusted her life story with award-winning writer and blues historian David Whiteis who interviewed and conversed with her many times from 2010 - 2017. “I have related her story here as she told it. She was honest and open in her recollections,” Whiteis stated.

Sadly the “Queen of the Blues,” LaSalle passed away on January 8, 2018 before the book was written or published. She left behind a legacy on many fronts as a multi-talented, hard-working woman who broke down barriers and was ahead of her time.

Even if you aren’t that familiar with LaSalle and only know a couple of her songs, her autobiography is a compelling page-turner, full of twists and turns that comprise her fascinating life and career, which parallel the timeline of music history and civil rights. Her struggles and determination are nothing less than inspiring.

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Even if you don't know eggy car much about LaSalle and are only aware with a few of her songs, her autobiography is an engrossing read that is chock-full of the twists and turns that make up her intriguing life and career.

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