When I first heard House star Hugh Laurie was a singer on top of being a great actor and comedian, I was somewhat surprised. He himself admits he’s broken a cardinal rule of art, music and career paths: “actors are supposed to act, musicians are supposed to (make) music. That’s how it works. You don’t buy fish from a dentist, or ask a plumber for financial advice, so why listen to an actor’s music?”
Last night gave me a reason why.
I was invited to attend a special show where Hugh and a nine-piece band would be performing some of the songs off his debut album, Let Them Talk. So special, it would be filmed live in New Orleans, a site of such musical ancestry and the place that inspired many of the classic songs on the album.
The venue, called Latrobe’s on Royal Street in the French Quarter, is the perfect setting for Hugh to celebrate the New Orleans blues songs he has recorded on his debut album. He arrives a few moments after we do, chatting briefly to people before going behind a curtain to prepare. There are a handful of us, about 25, seated in the room of this much-loved venue built by an architect – Hugh will soon proudly tell us – who is also from Yorkshire.
He saunters in cheerily, and makes his way to the Steinway & Sons piano, to perform songs that he has come to hold dear to his heart. Every now and then, he brings in horns supremo Allen Toussaint, who gently, yet masterfully conducts the horn section of the band. Each time Allen comes in and goes out again, Hugh stands and bows to thank him for joining him in the recording.
It’s a recording for broadcast, so camera angles need to be changed and lights need to be adjusted. Each time the sound engineer comes out to fix something, Hugh calls him the WOM – “not a well-oiled machine, but a well-oiled man!”
At one stage, he brings out a small brown guitar, telling us it’s from the 1930s and he loves it so much that he wants to cover it in cream and eat it. Hugh talks about his old piano teacher Mrs Hare, before dedicating Swanee River to her, and tells us how she cut short his formal training because she refused to teach him this very ditty.
Hugh also brings out special guests: “I now call to the stage, no wait, this isn’t a stage…it’s a floor. No actually, a rug. I now call to the rug the wonderful Irma Thomas.” The New Orleans singer gloriously croons alongside him. “Just how excited can you get?” Hugh asks us, before Sir Tom Jones comes out and they, together with Irma, dive into Baby, Please Make A Change (originally done by Mississippi Sheiks). The comraderie between the two – as singers – is evident as they banter about song lyrics and Tom gives Hugh a knowing nod during the song.
Hugh also name-checks pianist Professor Longhair and before he plays Tipitina tells us: “This song means a great deal to me, and if I can, I want to make it mean a great deal to you.”
That’s what tonight – and the album – is all about. Making music lovers appreciate the blues all over again. And that’s doctor’s orders!
Hugh Laurie’s album, Let Them Talk, is due to be released in South Africa and Europe in May and. He will be performing a few shows in Europe during April and May. More details here.
P.S I thoroughly enjoyed Sir Tom Jones joining in the fun and contributing his deep vocals to the track he sang. As always, he was full of good words about South Africa, when I chatted to him afterwards. The only thing that upset him, he said, was that he missed seeing the World Cup in action because he left SA after performing in Cape Town and at Sun City just before kick-off, and so he had to watch it all on TV!