Les McCann, Grammy-Nominated Jazz Pianist And Singer, Dies Aged 88

McCann also discovered Roberta Flack, while his music has been sampled by hip-hop stars such as Nas, Snoop Dogg and A Tribe Called Quest.

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Les McCann - Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Les McCann, the Grammy-nominated jazz pianist, composer and vocalist who discovered a young Roberta Flack, and whose own works have been sampled by countless hip-hop artists, died on Friday, December 29, at the age of 88.

Born Leslie McCann on September 23, 1935 in Lexington, Kentucky, the musician would become one of jazz’s “most gifted and influential artists,” according to a statement from Kevin Gore, president of Global Catalog, Recorded Music for Warner Music Group.

McCann’s family was a musical one. Along with his four younger brothers and his sister, he sang in the Shiloh Baptist Church choir. He also began playing piano at age 3, before attending Dunbar High School in Lexington, where he also played drums and sousaphone in the marching band.

A self-taught musician, Les McCann was an innovator in the soul jazz piano style, fusing jazz with funk, soul and world rhythms. He mastered all instruments before him and left Kentucky aged just 17, enlisting in the U.S navy and being posted to the San Francisco area. He enjoyed an unusual breakthrough, by winning a Navy talent contest, opening the door to an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

He also took part in Pacific Jazz Records sessions led by the saxophonist Teddy Edwards, the Jazz Crusaders and others. Les McCann Ltd. backed the singer Lou Rawls on his debut album, Stormy Monday, released by Capitol Records in 1962.

An early solo hit followed with “The Shampoo,” the 1963 instrumental cut with his trio for Pacific Jazz, though McCall would later enjoy a more fruitful relationship with Atlantic Records, releasing a dozen albums on the label from the late-‘60s through to the mid-‘70s.

During that period, Atlantic released Swiss Movement, featuring McCann, frequent collaborator, saxophonist and labelmate Eddie Harris, and trumpeter Benny Bailey. The album earned a Grammy nomination for best jazz performance – small group or soloist with small group, and included the protest song, “Compared to What,” which McCann and Co. performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1969.

Another career highlight would come in 1971, when McCann appeared with a star-studded cast of artists, including Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, Santana and Ike & Tina Turner, for an historic 14-hour concert in Accra, Ghana. The event was captured for the concert film Soul To Soul.

During the 1970s and ’80s, McCann recorded albums for the Impulse!, A&M and Jam labels. In 1989, he was a guest on the NPR show “Piano Jazz,” hosted by his fellow pianist Marian McPartland, it was as both a singer and a player. The two closed the broadcast with a duet on “Compared to What.”

A stroke in the 1990s slowed McCann’s output. Instead, he concentrated on painting and photography, before he recovered for a string of music releases, including Pump It Up from 2002. His last recording was the holiday-themed A Time Les Christmas, which he released himself in 2018.

In addition to his own career, it was Les McCann who discovered and recommended the celebrated soul singer Roberta Flack to Atlantic Records.

McCann’s music has been sampled by nearly 300 hip-hop artists, including Eric B. & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill, Nas, De La Soul, Snoop Dogg, the Notorious B.I.G. and Sean Combs.

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