Reporting Shannon Carlin
Hugh Laurie isn’t a doctor; he just played one on TV.
For eight years, Laurie was better known as everyone’s favorite pill-popping curmudgeon Dr. Gregory House. Now he’s playing the role of bandleader, touring the country behind his new album, Didn’t It Rain. It’s a role he’s much more comfortable with, and not just because there’s a lot less medical jargon to memorize.
Laurie told Radio.com that he’s always felt like his truest self when he’s onstage playing music. “I think of acting, it’s all about putting on masks of some kind and music is all about removing them really,” he explained. “When you’re singing a song, you’re telling a story that requires playing a character, but even so, there’s something about music that is very exposing. In a good way.”
Laurie’s latest album focuses on the music of New Orleans, from covers of standard blues songs like “Why Don’t You Do Right?” by Kansas Joe McCoy to more contemporary tracks like “One for My Baby,” which was popularized by Frank Sinatra in the ‘40s.
The record is a love letter to the music Laurie grew up listening to as a child in England. “There’s kinds of English music that I could have got into,” he said. “But they just didn’t touch me the way Muddy Waters touched me or the way Lead Belly touched me. It was just a direct experience. It was just like a thunderbolt.”
Though he can’t remember the song he first heard that got him hooked, he remembers the feeling of hearing that first blues note. “It just changed everything for me,” he said. “I saved up and went out and bought my first record, which was a Muddy Waters record. Not really knowing anything about Muddy Waters, but you have to start somewhere.”
Blues and jazz music, Laurie said, is once of the best things America has given to the world. “It is the biggest, possibly, equaled only by the martini, which is another splendid contribution to world culture,” he joked.
With his second album—his first, Let Them Talk, came out in 2011—Laurie wanted to expand his sound from just classic blues to incorporate a little gospel, tango and jazz. Laurie also wanted to add more women into the mix. “In my mind, one could argue that all music originates with women,” he said, sharing his theory that music really originated from a mother soothing a baby. Laurie also noted that the in the beginning, the biggest blues and jazz singers were women. “Then men turned up with guitars and started shredding.”
With help from vocalists Jean McClain and Gaby Moreno, along with Elizabeth Lea on trombone, the album becomes more of a dialogue between the sexes and even has a slightly romantic feel. “It feels more sort of balanced,” Laurie said. “I don’t dare use the word seduction, but oh wait, I just did.”
The best example of this flirty sound is the tango “Kiss Of Fire.” The track is filled with passion, but it’s a restrained passion. “That’s what’s sexy about it,” Laurie said about the track, which has Moreno playing the siren as he tries not to surrender to her burning kiss.
Though Laurie has made subtle changes to the songs, he says he has stayed true to the spirit of the music. “The idea of being true to something is not about arrangements or melody. You can be true in a million different ways in spirit,” he said. “I have a respect for the origins of this music, a reverence for it.”
Adding, “I would fight any man who disrespects this music.”
Luckily it hasn’t come to that yet. Instead Laurie’s taken on the role of pianist and historian while on tour. His biggest hope is that those who solely bought a ticket to see Dr. House play the piano will walk away with a new appreciation for the music of New Orleans.
“If people…hear a song and are curious to know, ‘Who is Lil Green?’ And if they then find out that Lil Green was one of the greatest singers of all time but died tragically young and no one knows anything about her,” Laurie explained. “If anyone goes away from one of our shows with that kind of curiosity or enthusiasm, I for one would be honored.”