For those cultural snobs who persist in dismissing Blaxploitation films as totally worthless trash, prepare to be challenged again. These films employed so many talented and engaging personalities, even in the minutest roles. One of the greatest discoveries for me is Laura Lee, who appeared (uncredited, egregiously) in the overlooked Detroit 9000 (1973) as the lead performer at the senator’s fundraiser, and one of many held hostage by robbers.
Initially I was distracted by the blatantly obvious out-of-sync between the audio and video. Luckily I was able to squash the judgmental tumor momentarily to appreciate Lee’s powerfully soulful voice and her dynamic screen presence as she conveyed fear, but strength as she reprised the song and tried to help people restore their courage.
I couldn’t get Laura Lee out of my mind. I had to know more about this talented woman. Born in Chicago in 1945, Lee relocated to Detroit with her mother as a child. As an adolescent she joined the gospel group, The Meditation Singers, which was led by Della Reese before she went on to having a successful recording career. From the clips I have heard, one thing I liked was how their arrangements were simple unlike a lot of gospel. Lee’s star quality and killer voice were already on display.
Lee eventually struck out on her own, joining wunderkind impresario Rick Hall’s then-emerging record label Chess Records in 1966. She was in good company among the likes of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett (though sadly she wasn’t featured in last year’s tuneful documentary Muscle Shoals).
As a solo artist, she forged a sassy persona with great help from her gravelly, theatrical vocal intonations. Many of her songs in the 1970s were strong, empowering emblems of emancipating women from the crap end of the gender political spectrum. Her songs still sound catchy and are still sadly relevant.
In the late 70s, Lee had a near-death battle with cancer. During this ordeal, she forged a strong connection with God, whom she cites for curing her of the disease. Subsequently, she abandoned her secular singing career for over twenty years. (If this song is autobiographical, her conversion sounds like a traumatic process).
Thankfully in recent years she has been given the OK by God to perform secular music again. It seems as though she still performs in Detroit. In spite of the poor video quality, Lee still looks and sounds fantastic. I haven’t been able to find any activity after 2009, but hopefully, she’ll make another album in the near future.
Until then, here are five oldies but goodies.
Women’s Love Rights
Her biggest hit, this is a nice mid-tempo with a great chorus and wonderfully nonjudgmental lyrics condoning any type of love a woman wants.
Since I Fell For You
It has many of the wonderfully quaint elements of 70s Soul (namely the introductory talking narration, though Lee has such an expressive voice), but the raw passion that Lee brings to a woman who was devastated by being seduced and then abandoned by a smooth operator is undeniable.
This tune represents the timelessness of the “Muscle Shoals” sound, which can’t be beat. The then 20-year-old Lee exhibits more confidence and maturity of voice than most singers ever do.
It’s Not What You Fall For (It’s What You Stand For)
In perhaps the most confrontational but inspirational song, the arrangement consisting primarily of funky guitars and vibrant percussions emphasizes Lee’s gravelly timbre.
Not as politically charged as many of Lee’s other songs, she clearly is having a ball with this spirited rendition of this fun “revenge is sweet” song. I love that she won’t even let her cheating man have the wallpaper.