Denise LaSalle, a Hall of Fame soul and blues singer and songwriter whose earthy lyrics and sexually explicit stage patter made her an enduring presence in predominantly black clubs and theaters, died Jan. 8 at a hospital in Jackson, Tenn. She was 83.
Her husband, James E. Wolfe Jr., confirmed the death but did not give a cause. In October, Ms. LaSalle underwent a leg amputation because of complications from a fall.
But Ms. LaSalle found her greatest niche writing and performing songs that dealt frankly and humorously with sex, such as “Don’t Jump My Pony” (1992) and “A Lady in the Street” (1983), which featured the refrain, “I can be a lady in the streets and freaky in the bedroom.”
When singing about matters of the heart and the bedroom, Ms. LaSalle did not spare the men in her audience. She called them out for mediocre lovemaking (“Dip, Bam, Thank You Maam”) and promiscuity (“Your Husband Is Cheating On Us”) — and even offered explicit advice on their amorous technique (“Snap, Crackle and Pop”).
“There are a lot of ladies out there that would like to say the things to men that I sing, but they haven’t got the nerve, so I give them the nerve — buy the record, go home, put it on, play it over and over again, make him mad as hell,” she told Living Blues magazine in 1992.
A charismatic, full-figured woman who always performed in glittery outfits, Ms. LaSalle proved a popular night club draw even though her lyrical candor often kept her off the airwaves. The adult content obscured her versatility — she also recorded country, gospel and covered the zydeco song “My Toot Toot” — and considerable vocal talent.
“Ms. LaSalle can be joyously filthy, a slightly subdued version of Millie Jackson,” New York Times reviewer Peter Watrous wrote in 1988. “But she’s also in command of the gospel vocabulary, and her program was a perfect example of how all the wavering melismas, shouts and glissandos that make up the passionate signs of popular American music are musical tools, to be applied when necessary. One second she’d be uproariously funny, the next she’d be singing as if her heart had been broken and the world was going to end.”
She was born Ora Denise Allen on July 16, 1934, in Leflore County, Miss., according to her husband. (Other biographical sources give her birth year as 1939.) Her parents were sharecroppers.
At 13, she moved to Chicago to live with an older brother and sang with a gospel group, the Sacred Five. As a teenager, she hoped to become a writer and had one story published by Tan magazine. When other manuscripts were rejected, she turned her attention to writing poetry and songs. She took the name LaSalle from a French character in a comic strip.
Ms. LaSalle befriended singer-pianist Billy “The Kid” Emerson, who pushed her to enter talent shows on Chicago’s South Side. Emerson produced her first record, the Motown-influenced “A Love Reputation,” a song about man-stealing prowess, in 1967. After the song caught on locally, Emerson leased it to Chess Records.
When her follow-up records for Chess failed to sell, she and her then-husband, Bill Jones, started their own label, Crajon. Ms. LaSalle also wrote songs for other Crajon performers such as singer Bill Coday’s 1971 hit, “Get Your Lie Straight.”
In 1970, she partnered with Mitchell to record songs such as “Hung Up, Strung Out.” A year later, she recorded her biggest success, “Trapped by a Thing Called Love,” her only song to appear on the pop charts.
She continued to have rhythm-and-blues hits in the 1970s with such songs as “Now Run and Tell That,” “Man Sized Job,” and “Married, But Not To Each Other.” The last was covered by country singer Barbara Mandrell in 1977. But record companies had difficulty promoting a Southern-style soul singer in the disco era and, by the end of the decade, she was without a contract.
Ms. LaSalle pitched her song “Someone Else Is Slippin’ I n” to blues singer Z.Z. Hill, who recorded it for Malaco, a soul label in Jackson, Miss. The company signed her after the composition — now a much-covered blues standard with versions by Buddy Guy and Magic Slim — became a signature song for Hill. Several of her 1980s albums were recorded with the acclaimed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Ms. LaSalle only recorded gospel music between 1999 and 2001 but returned to secular music in more recent years.
Her marriages to Artice Craig and Bill Jones ended in divorce. A detailed list of survivors could not immediately be determined.
She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2015.
Ms. LaSalle was known for her willingness to talk to fans and sign autographs long after the show, and said doing so often inspired her music.
“I may be working in a club one night and here comes a lady that will come up and tell me her problems, and lay it on my shoulder as though I’m Dear Abby,” she once said. “So I’ve become Dear Abby for these people. I get a story out of what she’s saying, and put myself in that situation and what would I do about this man or this situation. And I write a song about it.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries