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Appreciation: Les McCann, oft-sampled soul-jazz pioneer, dead at 88: ‘I had a feeling that… I could do anything’

By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune
Published: January 4, 2024, 6:06am

SAN DIEGO — Les McCann stood only 5 feet, 7 inches tall, but he was a towering figure when he sang and played piano. The rousing brand of soul-jazz he helped pioneer in the 1950s and ‘60s inspired several generations of musicians, from Bonnie Raitt and Bill Withers to such hip-hop stars as the Notorious B.I.G., A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, who sampled McCann’s music on their own records.

“If it’s done from the heart, people feel it,” McCann said in a 1986 San Diego Union interview.

He died Friday at a Los Angeles hospital after developing pneumonia about one week ago, but his passing was only disclosed Monday by Alan Abrahams, his longtime manager.

No specific cause has been cited for the death of the 88-year-old musician, who continued performing for more than two decades after suffering a mid-concert stroke in Germany in January 1995 that partially paralyzed the right side of his body.

After undergoing extensive physical therapy, McCann was back onstage just five months later for a Hollywood Bowl performance at the Playboy Jazz Festival. His next album, 2002’s “Pump It Up,” featured such high-profile admirers as Raitt, Billy Preston, Dianne Reeves, former Miles Davis bassist Marcus Miller and former James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker.

“Music is just one of the tools we have to carry us through life,” McCann said in his 1985 interview. “We need to balance it with a spiritual side. God is within each of us and our spirit is nurtured every minute. I’m a rainbow-person — I believe in multi-everything. Let everyone and everything come forth and be seen.”

The spirit in McCann’s music was imbued in virtually every note he sang and played on the piano and organ. His depth of soulful expression was rooted in the gospel music he grew up hearing in Baptist churches in Kentucky, where McCann was born Sept. 23, 1935.

“That was the foundation, the basis for all of my knowledge,” he affirmed.

“I always felt the spirit of God, even when I didn’t understand what it was. I’d go to sleep when the preacher started talking and I’d wake up when the music started playing. I’d break my neck to hear the choir practice, watch the organist rehearse and get out (of church) so I wouldn’t have to hear the sermon.”

McCann’s debut album as a band leader was released in 1959 and he made more than 50 others in the decades that followed, mixing jazz, gospel, funk and more. But he was best known for his 1969 recording of the scathing Eugene McDaniels’ protest song, “Compared to What.” It was featured on “Swiss Movement,” a hit live album McCann made with saxophonist Eddie Harris at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

In 2003, a modified version of the song was featured in a Coca Cola TV commercial with new lyrics written and performed by Mya and hip-hop artist Common.

McCann helped popularize the electric piano in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so much so that Bonnie Raitt cited him as a specific influence on “Waiting For You to Blow,” a standout song on her 2022 album, “Juts Like That.”

“I’m really proud of ‘Waiting For You to Blow’ because I wanted to try something new for me, a mixture of ‘70s funk and jazz,” Raitt said in a 2022 Union-Tribune interview. “l love Eddie Harris, Les McCann and the Crusaders, and I wanted to hybridize that style of jazz-funk and put to lyrics about a serious subject that had a sardonic satirical bent to them.”

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An astute judge of talent, McCann instrumental in helping two young artists, Lou Rawls and Roberta Flack, get signed to major record label deals. His performance career stretched from the 1950s to what appears to have been his final concert — at the Long Beach Jazz Festival — in 2017.

Here is our complete 1986 interview with McCann.

Les McCann puts heart and soul into all his activities

By George Varga, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Jan. 29, 1986

Les McCann is sweating profusely, but he’s nowhere near a concert stage.

The veteran singer-keyboardist has just jogged into the lobby of a La Jolla hotel after an especially vigorous afternoon basketball game with the members of his band. Attired in a dark blue warm-up suit, McCann wipes his brow and takes a deep breath.

“I like to pretend I’m an athlete,” the portly musician says, chuckling. “I get out and play tennis, or something else, every day. Our saxophonist, Bobby Bryant Jr., has been threatening us with his basketball abilities. We told him to put up or shut up and he surprised us.”

McCann, who stands 5 feet, 7 inches tall, is nearly a foot shorter than his formidable saxophonist. Other men might shrink away from such a seemingly uneven contest, but not McCann. Dismissing this pronounced disparity in height with a wave of his hands, the 50-year-old mustachioed musician discusses his athletic activities with the same enthusiasm he brings to his music.

“I had a feeling as a child that I could do anything,” recalls McCann, who was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. “In those days, people referred to my family as crazy. Why? Because we did what we wanted.”

Today, the Los Angeles-based performer continues to live his life pretty much as he pleases, devoting nearly as much time to his various avocations as he does to his musical career.

“I’m extremely happy doing what I’m doing,” affirms McCann. “I don’t separate music from photography, painting or traveling; they’re all part of the same package. What’s in my soul and heart — what I am about — that’s what I’m trying to understand.”

Heart and soul are two of the foremost qualities that inform Les McCann’s music. As one of the first artists to successfully fuse jazz, gospel, blues and funk in the 1950s, he helped lay the foundation for much of the pop and soul music that followed in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Blessed with a deeply resonant singing voice and a strong, no-nonsense keyboard technique, McCann is also an astute judge of talent who was instrumental in launching the careers of both Lou Rawls and Roberta Flack.

In 1969, McCann teamed up with saxophonist Eddie Harris on “Swiss Movement,” a charged live album that helped introduce many young, rock-oriented listeners to the world of jazz. The record also yielded “Compared To What,” the rousing protest song by Eugene McDaniels about the social and political upheaval of the ‘60s that has since become the pianist’s signature tune.

Currently in the midst of a three-week club engagement here, McCann and his splendid group, the Magic Band, will appear tomorrow through Sunday and next Thursday through Sunday at Elario’s at the Summer House Inn in La Jolla. Showtime each evening is from 9 to 1.

A resident of Van Nuys, McCann has performed at this same La Jolla venue several times before, and he clearly enjoys the panoramic seaside setting. Seated by the balcony of his spacious, eighth-floor suite, he warmly greets a bellboy delivering drinks, then turns and gazes out at the stunning coastal vista below.

Scattered across this and the adjoining hotel room are some of the tools and toys that McCann takes with him to make the approximately 200 days he spends on the road each year more tolerable. These include a small Casio electric keyboard; a pair of tennis racquets; a set of watercolor paints (McCann will have his first art opening in April in Arizona); and a life-sized toy puppy (“To surprise people on airplanes; they think it’s alive!” he says).

After pouring himself a glass of iced tea and offering a visitor some fresh French bread and butter, McCann describes the incident that, in 1947, compelled him to pursue music as his livelihood.

“I was 17 and in the Navy,” he recalls. “We were marching in formation — Hup, two, three, four! — and I heard a record of (pianist) Erroll Garner playing ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ off in the distance. It was the first time I’d heard a solo instrument playing a style of music I didn’t know.

“I got so excited that the company went marching one way, and I went the other! I got in a lot of trouble and was ordered to report to my commanding officer for breaking rank. He asked me what the problem was, and I said, ‘Nothing. I just heard this beautiful sound.’ He understood, and sent me back to my unit.”

By McCann’s account, this was not the first time he had marched to the beat of a completely different drummer than those around him.

“I took piano lessons for a few weeks when I was 6. My mother paid 25 cents per lesson, but I wasn’t meant to learn that way. I wanted to create my own music. For a person living in the South then, music was a soother for the soul.”

McCann, who would later serve as a drummer and horn player in his high-school marching band, soon developed a love for the great symphonies and for distinctive rhythm and blues vocal stylists such as Bullmoose Jackson, Billy Eckstine and Louis Jordan. But it was the ebullient gospel music he heard at his local Baptist church that touched him the deepest.

“That was the foundation, the basis for all of my knowledge,” says McCann, whose rollicking piano work still bears a strong gospel tinge.

“I always felt the spirit of God, even when I didn’t understand what it was. I’d go to sleep when the preacher started talking and I’d wake up when the music started playing. I’d break my neck to hear the choir practice, watch the organist rehearse and get out (of church) so I wouldn’t have to hear the sermon.”

McCann spent four years in the Navy, stationed at “the great seaports of the world — Norman, Oklahoma; Millington, Tennessee; and, finally, San Francisco, where I at least got to see water!” The young recruit concluded his tour of duty by winning the all-Navy talent competition, an honor that earned him a guest spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

After his discharge from the service, McCann settled in Los Angeles, where he attended college on the GI Bill. There, he studied music, radio and TV broadcasting, and learned “how to speak and write clearly and well.” He also performed music with a religious zeal worthy of his Baptist upbringing.

“I played in clubs, organized jam sessions, recorded. I don’t ever remember going to sleep,” said McCann, laughing. “The educational structure wasn’t where my ears and heart were leading me. I heard other sounds, other chords, and students would ask me questions instead of the teacher. The teachers thought of me as a troublemaker. Unfortunately for me, I’d tell them the truth.”

With bassist Leroy Vinegar and drummer Ron Jefferson, McCann set out to realize his then-distinctive musical vision.

“It was unbelievable,” recalls the singer-pianist. “We were the toast of the town and we really shook things up. We played songs I knew with a gospel feeling, and people either loved it or hated it.”

Soon McCann was signed by Pacific Jazz Records, which released his first album as a band leader, “Truth,” in 1959. He was completely unprepared for the scathing reviews that followed.

“It wasn’t my idea, but we were dubbed as ‘soul music,’ “ says McCann, shaking his head wistfully.

“We got one of the all-time worst reviews in Downbeat. It was earth-shattering, devastating. As a young musician, I was very naive, vulnerable and shaken. But I realized that controversy is a key to success and can be used to your advantage. I hadn’t played on the East Coast before, but after the (negative) review in Downbeat, I got calls to go out there and play. We became even more popular because of that review.”

McCann has since appeared on more than 60 albums of varying quality, earning mixed critical response. His latest release, “Music Box,” came out last year on JAM Records, a small label with limited distribution. McCann is currently without a record contract altogether — a situation made even more ironic by the quality of his current band, easily one of his finest ever.

Featuring the gifted saxophonist Bryant, bassist Curtis Robertson Jr. and former George Benson-Maze drummer Tony St. James, the Magic Band is an inspired musical unit by any standards. An energetic, seamlessly tight group, the 7-year-old ensemble performs with equal skill and conviction whether essaying a silky ballad; a nimble Latin instrumental; a hard-driving, jazz-funk tune; a sizzling adaptation of Dizzy Gillespie’s bop classic “Blue and Boogie”; or McCann’s traditional set-closer, “Compared To What.”

“Les gives us the freedom to do what we want, so long as it fits the music,” says drummer St. James, 25.

“The reason I choose to be with this band is that you get to express who you are,” adds bassist Robertson, 32. “Les is a real people-oriented bandleader, and he’s got a heart as big as Southern California.”

McCann laughs appreciatively at these comments. “We’re not limited — we try all kinds of things. We’re more interested in playing music than we are in showing off. We stumble, but somehow we stay with it and get to the mountaintop. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. If it’s done from the heart, people feel it. I like to be with young people, because they display a lot of spontaneity.

“Music is just one of the tools we have to carry us through life. We need to balance it with a spiritual side. God is within each of us and our spirit is nurtured every minute. I’m a rainbow-person — I believe in multi-everything. Let everyone and everything come forth and be seen.”