So, admit it: when you watched The Celebrity Apprentice this spring, you were pulling for Cyndi Lauper to win. Who can forget her inimitable New York accent, the bursts of creativity that kept her teammates in a concurrent state of adoration and aggravation, or how she kicked butt on the silly plumber radio commercial task when Holly Robinson-Peete didn't think she could pull it off? Whadya talking about? This is Cyndi Lauper, people. She can do anything.
So, in honor of her 57th (yes, I can't believe it, either) birthday on June 22, Lauper will celebrate by getting the blues... the Memphis Blues. The 11th album in a career that includes She's So Unusual, True Colors, and the danceable Bring Ya to the Brink, Memphis Blues may seem like a funny departure for the pop veteran who's still best known for wearing tulle skirts and rainbow hair dye in her mid-1980s music videos featuring late wrestler Captain Lou Albano. But to those of us who never abandoned her -- even when her multiplatinum record sales waned -- Memphis Blues is our long-awaited front-row seat to Cyndi Lauper's dream recording session. At what other time in her career would a collaboration with B.B. King, Allen Toussaint, Ann Peebles, Jonny Lang and Charlie Musselwhite have made more sense?
As with her well-received 2003 covers album At Last (on which she tackled classics by everyone from Jacques Brel to Smokey Robinson and dueted with Tony Bennett), Memphis Blues finds Lauper in what once again sounds like her most natural, if not most obvious, role yet -- as vocal interpreter and musical collaborator, adding her unique spit-and-polish to established songs. Now, mind you, she's no Ruth Brown or Koko Taylor (nor would we want her to be). And while traditional scorchers like "Crossroads" and "Rollin' and Tumblin'" could have easily fallen flat, these are the moments where Cyndi Lauper shines brightest: when she sings the opening verse to the former, followed by scratchy-voiced Jonny Lang, you never get the feeling she's trying to sing the blues; you just know that this woman can belt it. She seems as comfortable go-go-ing to the neo-Stax backbeat of "Don't Cry No More" as she does reaching to the bottom of her alto to soar in "Down So Low." Kudos to producer Scott Bomar, who left the vocal microphone distortion in the recording so we can feel the real strength in Lauper's singing.
In our recent phone conversation, Cyndi and I got sidetracked (imagine that) while talking about her dog Cleopatra; how much she loves the tasty food in Memphis (barbecue! fried chicken! cornbread!); and how we both can't believe that former NYC nightclub Limelight is now an upscale shopping market?! But Lauper did have plenty of nice words to say about her Memphis Blues co-conspirators:On Allen Toussaint (New Orleans veteran who performs organ and piano on "Shattered Dreams," "Early in the Morning" and "Mother Earth"):
On Ann Peebles (Memphis soul legend who duets on "Rollin' and Tumblin'"):
Working with Allen is very magical, like a spell. Like voodoo. When the songs are [arranged] in the proper key and in the proper time, they create a spell that you fall into, and basically those were all the little forays we went on together.
On Jonny Lang (29-year-old Grammy-winning blues singer and guitarist on "How Blue Can You Get" and "Crossroads"):
I love music so much. That's what I do. And I'm a fan. So of course, when [I walked in the studio and] saw Ann Peebles, I felt like Kung Fu Panda. I was crying. Not really crying, but I wanted to be great [for her].
He is so awesome. He's such a great guy. I stop myself from saying 'he's such a good kid.' When Jonny came [to the studio], I arranged the music with him there. And we just felt it when we did it.
Memphis Blues is available at most digital music retailers beginning June 22.
Cyndi Lauper hits the road this summer for a three-month tour singing the blues and her best-loved hits. Visit http://cyndilauper.com for more info.