Singer Elise LeGrow’s Soulfully Rousing “Playing Chess” Album Inspired by Etta James, Chuck Berry, Sugar Pie DeSanto & Bo Diddley…so, Who Do You Love?

By Amy Willard
Elise LeGrow channeling style icon “Mia Wallace”

It’s said that serendipity always rewards the prepared.

When singer Elise LeGrow was looking for a label partner to support her vision, a stroke of chance saw her travel to the Manhattan head office of S-Curve Records in 2016. Toronto-born LeGrow had been singing her heart out, working hard and waiting for this shot. Overlooking a gorgeous panorama of New York’s skyline, and singing only with an accompanying guitarist, LeGrow nailed the audition.

Two years later, Elise LeGrow’s “totally stoked” that her debut record, “Playing Chess,” debuts on February 16 on S-Curve/Awesome Music. And to kick off its release, delightful LeGrow is doing a mini-tour of Europe this month, supported by BMG, with a North American tour to come.

The record’s eclectic selection of 11 tracks are from the catalog of Chicago’s iconic Chess label, home to pioneers like Etta James, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry, along with other less known but still talented artists — hence, the record’s title, “Playing Chess.” It’s produced by S-Curve’s Steve Greenberg, R&B legend Betty Wright (“Clean Up Woman”), and studio virtuoso Mike Mangini — the same trio of Grammy-winners behind Joss Stone’s multi-million-selling “Soul Sessions” album. Add in the guest appearance of Questlove, and LeGrow’s debut just reaches out, grabs and hooks you in.

The result is a dynamic ebb and flow of rocked up and inventive interpretations of legendary classics and unassuming but heartfelt gems, that showcase LeGrow’s bold and very feminine voice — with Betty Wright supporting her in the studio (“her presence was integral to my performances”), and LeGrow picking one of her icons Etta James (“Can’t Shake It”), along with Fontella Bass (“Rescue Me”) and Sugar Pie DeSanto (“Going Back Where I Belong”).

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LeGrow enthuses, “Sugar Pie is still playing in her eighties, still going strong. So there’s a few women in this project whose careers are enviable. We should all be so lucky.” LeGrow gives us a quick rundown of her evocative interpretations:

Who Do You Love? — (Bo Diddley)

“I walk 47 miles of barbed wire/I use a cobra-snake for a necktie…” The original lyrics just burn, with foreboding images about a skull, tombstone, and graveyard. Legrow, who does a dirty, rocked up version, says, “I thought it fascinating for a female singer appropriating a sort of male/biker/power song. When he talks to Arlene, I changed the lyric to a male pronoun because I thought it was an interesting song to take back for the ladies a little. It’s 2018, time to turn a great song on its head…”

Hold On —(The Radiants)

“I’ve always been a huge Motown fan. This song is hopeful and energetic. There’s a lot of blues on the record and some slower tunes, but I really wanted it to be more of a ride. So, this contrasts with ‘Sincerely’ or ‘Going Back,’ two slower numbers. You want some ebb and flow.”

You Never Can Tell — (Chuck Berry)

You know this tune, maybe from characters Mia and Vincent dancing to it in Pulp Fiction. Legrow’s version is a slow burn, admitting, “Mia Wallace is a style icon of mine. Love that scene of them slipping off their shoes, the irreverence of that act in a restaurant. Here’s some back story. S-Curve producer Steve Greenberg wrote the melody, that you hear on my record, way back as a young man on an Israeli Kibbutz. Then 40 plus years later, when we’re making this record, he says, ‘This may be crazy but I wrote this melody. I’ll play it for you, no pressure.’ I thought it was lovely and we went for it.”

Over the Mountain, Across the Sea — (Johnnie & Joe)

“I love that song, because of its vivid imagery, it’s something I aspire to my in my songwriting, painting detailed pictures in the lyric. Those universal images and easily felt experiences — the wind, the grass, the stars. The more you sing them they kind of seep into own work.”

Searching for My Baby —(Bobby Moore & The Rhythm Aces)

“It was actually my favourite song to record, a great day in the studio. It really has a Motown ring. I’m a sucker for this kind of music. Ane, we’ve all been there, when we’ve really f**ked up and now need another chance, it’s part of the human condition.”

Long Lonely Nights — (Lee Andrews & the Hearts)

“This is the Questlove connection — his dad was Lee Andrews, the original songwriter. Steve off-handedly asked, “You know Questlove’s dad wrote this song — maybe he’d come play on it?” And, much to my pleasant surprise, he came in and played drums. It was such a memorable experience. Steve made a lot of things happens, he’s that kind of guy.” That serendipity thing, again.

Going Back Where I Belong — (Sugar Pie DeSanto)

“The song’s character decides there’s no hope, except to leave town. Unlike in ‘Searching,’ where there is some hope and a prayer. That’s a recurring theme on the record, asking for forgiveness. I think that resonates with people. Nobody’s perfect!”

Rescue Me — (Fontella Bass)

“It’s been covered a million times — Diana Ross, Linda Ronstadt, Cher — so we stripped it right down, so it doesn’t have that big production sound like the original. We hope we breathed new life into it.”

You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover — (Bo Diddley)

“It’s never more relevant in a Trump world. There’s a lot of bigotry and discrimination around. I do my best not to underestimate anyone. You never know what someone else’s story is. So it’s good to have an open mind — it’s something I aspire to in my life and music.”

Can’t Shake It — (Etta James)

“I really love her ability to be sweet and then raspy, rock and roll in the next moment. We found a gem that was recorded by Etta for Chess, but never actually released. So it’s a really cool opportunity to shine a light on a song by one of my very favourite singers.”

Sincerely — (Moonglows)

“This is my ‘I love ballads’ statement. On my own, I tend to write ballads and people will be hearing more of those on my next record of original music.”

Drop in on Elise LeGrow’s website for tour updates, and check her out on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Spotify.

Award-winning journalist-author-blogger for Playboy, TO Star, Movie Entertainment, HuffPost, Hello Canada & my novel REJEX (Pulp Hero Press) is on Amazon.