Usually when an actor takes the stage to play music it’s mediocre at best. But Hugh Laurie can really play piano and has assembled a top-shelf band from New Orleans. I profiled Laurie in advance of last Tuesday’s show in Napa, which was superb. Here’s my story from The Press Democrat, below:
Hugh Laurie is in the house
By Michael Shapiro
The Press Democrat
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
After listening to British actor Hugh Laurie’s rollicking album “Let Them Talk,” a gumbo of New Orleans blues styles, one has to ask: What can’t Laurie do?
You know him as the acerbic diagnostician, Dr. House, on the TV show “House.” And you may have sensed he could play piano during those snippets of the show when Laurie taps the keys.
But did you know Laurie was a champion rower in his youth? His father was an Olympic gold-medal-winning oarsman, and Laurie was on track for the Games before mononucleosis laid him low.
While a member of the Cambridge Footlights, an amateur acting troupe that has launched many careers, Laurie met and dated actress Emma Thompson. They remain good friends.
He then turned his talents to sketch comedy, gaining fame as half of the Fry and Laurie team with his close friend Stephen Fry.
The release of “Let Them Talk,” with guest musicians including soul singer Irma Thomas, keyboardist Dr. John and Welsh vocalist Tom Jones, puts Laurie on the musical map. Listening to the album is like a steamy stroll through the French Quarter on a sweltering summer night.
“Let Them Talk,” released last year, has reached the top of the Billboard blues chart and is a Gold record in the U.K. Laurie’s piano-playing has garnered favorable reviews, though there are moments when his voice sounds thin and reedy.
On the PBS show “Great Performances” Laurie, who has battled depression, said he’s drawn to the blues because the music evokes feeling.
“Blues can bring out in me every single human emotion,” Laurie said, “or at least every emotion that I know of. ‘Let Them Talk’ is an odyssey — my destination is the holy city of New Orleans.”
Laurie plays piano on “After You’ve Gone,” sung by his longtime hero, Dr. John, a highlight of the album.
“I played the piano for Dr. John — I can’t believe I’m saying that sentence,” Laurie said on the PBS show. “I’ve worshiped Dr. John, I mean really worshiped Dr. John, for as long as I can remember, and for me to be actually playing while he sings … I left the studio that day and I got into my car and actually wept.”
It wasn’t just Laurie’s appreciation of Dr. John, however, that led him to play piano.
“I tended to favor the piano over the guitar because it stays in one place, which is what I like to do,” he says on his website. “Guitars appeal to the footloose, the restless. I like sitting a lot.”
So what’s a British actor — don’t be fooled by the American accent he uses on “House” — doing headlining an album of New Orleans blues classics?
“I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s. You may as well know this now,” writes Laurie, 52, on the album’s website. “I’ve never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. … Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south.”
He goes on: “If that weren’t bad enough, I’m also an actor: one of those pampered ninnies who hasn’t bought a loaf of bread in a decade and can’t find his way through an airport without a babysitter.
“Worst of all, I’ve broken a cardinal rule of art, music, and career paths,” he says. “Actors are supposed to act, and musicians are supposed to 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?
His simple answer: he loves the blues with all his heart, provenance be damned.
“The blues have made me laugh, weep, dance. New Orleans was my Jerusalem,” he says, noting that the music fills him up.
“I could never bear to see this music confined to a glass cabinet, under the heading Culture: Only To Be Handled By Elderly Black Men. That way lies the grave, for the blues and just about everything else.”
While working on “Let Them Talk,” Laurie didn’t know if the album would succeed, but said in a YouTube video: “If it touches some people and leads (them) down the road that has given me so much pleasure in my life, then that will be a very great honor.”
Michael Shapiro writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. Contact him at via his site: www.michaelshapiro.net