The blues, like the novel, is always dead or dying, according to someone, somewhere. But somehow, time and again, both these old forms find a way to resurrect themselves. Still, if you were asked to finish a sentence that begins "The next great blues album will be the work of [your candidate here]," it would be pretty long odds that your answer would be "Cyndi Lauper."
Lauper started out in the '80s as a pop star with that self-titled album where it seemed like every song was a hit, and she’s been a creature of pop ever since. Nonetheless, here she is with Memphis Blues, and if there’s been a better blues album this year, it’s a well-kept secret.
Hard-core blues fans have every right to be suspicious of high-profile interlopers who breeze in and, with no credentials or background, lay claim to territory where excellent musicians have been toiling for years with little or no recognition. But life isn’t fair, and sometimes these interlopers deserve a listen. Maria Muldaur cut an acoustic blues album a few years ago that set the standard for such invasions, but Lauper gives that earlier album some serious competition.
The blues that come from Memphis are hard to categorize because they often stray over the line into rhythm and blues on one end and pure folk on the other, with gospel infusing everything. But all of it, from the the Memphis Jug Band to Elvis, from the Box Tops to Isaac Hayes, dips into the blues. And Memphis studios and their session players are equally famous for their Southern hospitality. Outsiders as varied as Dusty Springfield and reggae star Toots Hibbert have been welcomed in to marry their art with the local juju. Memphis, after New Orleans, might be the city most vital to American music.
Since the very definition of Memphis music lies in its accommodating elasticity, Lauper mixes up all sorts of styles, often on the same song. On Louis Jordan's "Early in the Mornin'," she shares vocal duties with B.B. King (who started out as a Memphis disc jockey) but makes room in the arrangement for an Allen Toussaint piano part that’s right out of the Professor Longhair playbook. By the same token, she can take a Chicago blues standard, feed it some barbecue, and teach it how to sweat. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have the undersung Ann Peebles, a true Memphian, along for the ride, but Lauper's version of Muddy Waters’s “Rollin' and Tumblin'" makes the song sound like it’s always lived in that storied city on the banks of the Mississippi River.
What makes the album work, though, are Lauper’s vocals. She always had a terrific voice, but she’s spent her life learning what she could do with it. With unerring pitch and faultless rhythm, she weaves in and out of a lyric, teasing lines, putting her little foot down right on the beat and then winging into the next phrase with such gravity-defying grace that it almost sounds easy. Listen to the bridge on "Don't Cry No More," where she sings over the drums alone for several measures before some very greasy horns jump in and escort her back to the chorus. It's a couple of minutes of music so good, I jumped out my chair when it was over. It takes guts for a singer to walk onto territory once owned by Memphis Minnie, but Lauper pulls it off like a woman who knows everything there is to know about having fun with the blues.