Q Magazine

R.I.P., Les McCann: Legendary Jazz Pianist and Vocalist Sampled on Hundreds of Hip-Hop Songs, Dead at 88

Among the artists who sampled McCann's songs: Massive Attack, Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg, and the Notorious B.I.G.

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Source: MEGA

Les McCann, tickling the ivories

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Les McCann, the jazz pianist, songwriter, and vocalist who found an additional level of fame via the hip-hop artists who sampled his various compositions and performances, has died at the age of 88.

McCann, whose death was confirmed by his manager, died at a Los Angeles area hospital on December 29 after being admitted for pneumonia.

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Source: Atlantic Records

The cover art for Les McCann's 1969 album 'Much Les'

Born on September 23, 1935 in Lexington, Kentucky, Leslie Coleman McCann was multi-instrumental, having played both tuba and drums before focusing in on the piano. He was predominantly self-taught, saying that he only took a few lessons when he was six and stopped when his teacher died.

It was his skill as a vocalist which brought McCann his first burst of fame, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show after winning a singing contest while serving in the US Navy. Once he got out of the service, he moved to California and pursued music as a career, beginning his own trio, which made their debut at the Purple Union in 1959 with Gene McDaniel and released their debut album, Les McCann Ltd. Plays the Truth, the following year.

After recording almost exclusively with Pacific Jazz and Limelight Records for the better part of the ‘60s, McCann signed to Atlantic Records in 1969, releasing his label debut, Much Les, the same year, along with the live album, Swiss Movement, recorded with Eddie Harris at the Montreux Jazz Festival. It was the latter LP which provided McCann with his only flirtation with mainstream airplay: the single “Compared to What,” written by the aforementioned Gene McDaniel, hit #35 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart and bubbled under the Hot 100.

Perhaps more importantly, “Compared to What” was also recorded in 1969 by Roberta Flack, who released it as her debut single. Perhaps not coincidentally, McCann is credited with having discovered Flack when she was playing in a Washington, DC nightclub. As he wrote in the liner notes to Flack’s debut album, First Take, “Her voice touched, tapped, trapped, and kicked every emotion I've ever known. I laughed, cried, and screamed for more... she alone had the voice.”

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In more recent years, however, McCann’s greatest claim to fame was for the way his past recordings were sampled and utilized by contemporary musicians, including Massive Attack, the Notorious B.I.G., A Tribe Called Quest, Naughty by Nature, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Cypress Hill, and hundreds more.

To pay tribute to McCann’s work as well as the samples of his work, Q has constructed a playlist which alternates between his songs and the songs in which he was sampled, closing with Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments,” which samples McCann’s “Vallarta,” a song which is currently unavailable on Spotify.


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