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NPR Arts & Life

Elise LeGrow's 'Playing Chess' Honors Blues And R&B Greats

Elise LeGrow remakes blues and soul classics for her full-length debut, <em>Playing Chess</em>.
Elise LeGrow remakes blues and soul classics for her full-length debut, <em>Playing Chess</em>.

Chess Records is an American institution. Founded in Chicago by Phil and Leonard Chess in the 1950s, it became the label that launched Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. Now, Canadian singer Elise LeGrow is taking on the label's catalog on her debut album: Playing Chessfeatures covers of songs made famous by Chuck Berry, Etta James, Sugar Pie DeSanto, The Moonglows and more.

"Etta James has been one of my favorite singers for a very long time and, of course, I was aware of Chuck Berry's hits. But I didn't realize that the common thread there was Chess," LeGrow tells NPR's Scott Simon.

The album features guest appearances from the Dap-Kings and, on the track "Long, Lonely Nights," Questlove and Captain Kirk Douglas from The Roots. Questlove's father, Lee Andrews, co-wrote that ballad back in 1965.

As she put together the track list, LeGrow says, old memories collided with some new surprises. Now 30, she'd heard Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" for the first time as a child, playing behind Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction's iconic dance sequence. When she put the song on her covers shortlist, her producer revealed he had written an original melody for the lyrics 40 years ago. Their combined efforts resulted in something all LeGrow's own: "I've had some people say it's completely unrecognizable until they hear the line, 'C'est la vie,' " she says.

LeGrow is already looking ahead to her next release, but she says she'll still want her sound to stay in the tradition of the greats she emulates on Playing Chess: "a live band and a girl in a room."

Playing Chess is available now from S-Curve Records. Listen to the full interview at the audio link.

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