What’s Hugh Laurie got to feel blue about? Reportedly the highest-paid actor on TV, he’s had a charmed existence from his student days at Eton and Cambridge and throughout his glittering career, but the polymath’s latest venture is a blues album, out in the UK on May 9 (a US release date will follow). Called Let Them Talk – perhaps in anticipation of a negative reaction – it was recorded in Los Angeles and New Orleans and features Laurie on vocals, guitar and piano alongside professional musicians and guests, including the pianist Dr John, the blues singer Irma Thomas and Sir Tom Jones.
Laurie is the first to point out that he’s not a stereotypical bluesman. In a typically wry statement accompanying the release, he admitted: “I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s. I’ve never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American South. If that weren’t bad enough, I’m also an actor: one of those pampered ninnies who can’t find his way through an airport without a babysitter.”
So far, Laurie has played one gig, in New Orleans, which was streamed online. Internet reaction has been divided: for every fan gushing over his surfeit of talents, there’s someone else arguing that his faux-American accent and bare-bones guitar playing is just embarrassing. What’s not up for debate is that he’s pretty decent on the piano, as fans of his TV series House will already be aware.
A YouTube channel, HughLaurieBlues, has been set up to showcase clips from Let Them Talk, as well as interviews with Laurie. In one, he explains how the album came about: he’d been approached before to record music, but always assumed he’d do it later in life. Then, at the age of 50, he was offered a deal again. “I think, I’m not going to feel clever saying ‘Oh, I could have done that,’” Laurie says. “I just sort of jumped in.”
Let Them Talk includes some originals, as well as covers of songs by blues legends such as Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, Jelly Roll Morton and Robert Johnson. As you’d expect, its subject matter is generally downbeat. “You see me laughing just to keep from crying,” Laurie sings on You Don’t Know My Mind, and in The Whale Has Swallowed Me, he sings that he feels as though he’s suffered the same fate as Jonah.
The blues aren’t a new infatuation for Laurie: he has said in interviews that he’s been a fan ever since hearing I Can’t Quit You Baby by Willie Dixon as a child; and although he doesn’t remember where he was when he heard that John Lennon had been assassinated, he remembers exactly where he was when he found out about Muddy Waters’s death. “I love this music as authentically as I know how,” he has said.
For many people, it doesn’t matter how long Laurie has adored Waters: the fact that he’s a rich, white actor born into an upper middle-class English family takes something away from the experience of hearing him sing. And perhaps it should: there’s a thrill that comes from hearing a musician tell stories they’ve lived through, especially if the stories are darker and wilder than anything the audience have experienced themselves.
But there’s a long tradition of white Brits adopting the blues and turning them into their own hybrid: just think of the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. And besides: who’s to say that Laurie doesn’t have terrible days just like anybody else? In a 2005 interview, he talked of the clinical depression for which he sought help in the 1990s, and which he traced back to a troubled relationship with his mother. Perhaps, despite all the money, fame and talent, Laurie gets blue too.
The trouble is that with success like Laurie’s behind him – rowing medals, acclaimed writing, award-winning stand-up, brilliant appearances in TV and film – anything less than coming top in the class looks like failure. He could have taken the easy option and stuck to what he’s best at, but where would be the challenge in that?
Laurie will be touring Europe this summer with his band and, relentlessly self-critical as he’s reported to be, he’s probably expecting to bomb. I wouldn’t be so sure. Whatever the haters (and the music press) say, I’d take a bet on them being drowned out by screams of approval from loyal fans.
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