Right around the time the chorus of album opener “Who Do You Love” hits, something magical happens. A moment arrives when the tumblers deep within your subconscious begin to align, when you suddenly realize that you’re listening to a tune you’ve known for decades, albeit one that’s been so radically reimagined as to become brand new again. It’s in that moment, as the warm rush of recognition meets the exhilarating thrill of discovery, that you fall in love with Elise LeGrow and her debut album, ‘Playing Chess.’
Produced by S-Curve Records founder Steve Greenberg, R&B legend Betty Wright, and studio wizard Mike Mangini (the same trio of Grammy-winners behind Joss Stone’s twelve-million-selling ‘Soul Sessions’ album), ‘Playing Chess’ is drawn entirely from the catalog of Chicago’s iconic Chess label, home to pioneers like Muddy Waters, Etta James, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry among others. Rather than faithfully recreate such revered material, though, LeGrow’s interpretations completely strip the tracks of their previous identities, transporting them to a world where the past and present are inextricably intertwined. A mix of beloved classics and obscure rarities, the album’s eleven tracks showcase LeGrow’s stunning voice and wildly inventive arrangements, which manage to collapse the whole of pop music history down into a singular point in which any song and genre can come together in an endless array of possibilities.
“We definitely had a vision for what the sonics of the record would be,” reflects LeGrow, “but we also left a lot of space for experimentation. The album’s eclecticism results from the spontaneous collision of my own musical influences with those of everyone in the studio, spanning decades and genres.”
Those influences truly run the gamut, touching on everything from Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey to Nina Simone and Martha and the Vandellas. LeGrow first became obsessed with singing at roughly the same age she began speaking, and by the time she hit her teens, she was working her way through the American songbook at nightclubs in her native Toronto and touring with an indie rock band on the side. When her voice first reached the ears of Greenberg and Mangini, they understood at once that they’d landed on something special.
“We hadn’t been tempted to make a soul album with anyone in a very long time,” says Mangini, “because no one’s voice had moved us to do so. As soon as Steve and I heard Elise’s voice—possessing such depth and versatility, gliding effortlessly from silky smooth to raunchy rasp—we immediately knew that it was time to put ‘the team’ back together and make this record.”
Though LeGrow’s father hailed from Chicagoland, and his father was a drummer and trumpeter active in the city’s jazz scene in the 1950’s, Elise herself had only a passing familiarity with the history of Chess when Greenberg and Mangini first proposed the project.
“I’d been a fan of Etta James and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley,” she explains, “but I wasn’t aware that they were all on the same label. I’d been enjoying their music for years without even realizing it.”
When it was time to select the material for ‘Playing Chess,’ LeGrow dove into the catalog headfirst, scouring the label’s discography in search of compelling tracks that rang true to her own life experiences. A great song alone wouldn’t cut it; the lyrics had to reflect Elise’s personality and beliefs in order for her to fully inhabit it.
“I spent hours and days and weeks picking the songs I felt most strongly about,” reflects LeGrow, “but I also went into it with a totally open mind because Steve is a walking musical encyclopedia and I assumed he’d dig up some hidden gems I didn’t even know about. The first time I came to New York to meet about the record, Steve and Mike and I spent seven hours just poring over all the Chess stuff. There was this energy in the room, and it was the first moment where we really felt like a team.”
When LeGrow returned to New York a few months later for the initial recording sessions, she met the final—and most renowned—member of the team: Betty Wright.
“Betty has this incredible life force and a personality that just fills the room,” Elise reflects. “We spent so much time where it was just the two of us in the studio, and she had all these amazing, inspiring words. Her presence was integral to my performances, and she was really able to lend her sensibilities to the whole project.”
The album kicks off, quite literally, with a bang, as an explosive, funky drum fill opens the door to a collection that’s as engaging as it is eager to subvert expectations. LeGrow’s interpretation of “Who Do You Love” is less Bo Diddley and more George Clinton, while “Rescue Me” filters 60’s soul through the lens of Labi Siffre’s 1975 R&B obscurity “I Got The Blues” (which would go on to form the bed for Eminem’s late 90’s single “My Name Is”), and the 50’s doo-wop of Johnnie and Joe’s “Over The Mountain” is reimagined here as a 70’s acoustic guitar-and-piano-driven track (with a subtle nod to Sleigh Bells’ “Rill Rill,” which itself samples Funkadelic’s classic “Can You Get To That”). If your head is swimming by now, that’s part of the point. Divorced from their contextual tethers, the tracks here are free to take on new life and connect a vast array of seemingly disparate dots along the pop music continuum. The results offer a fresh opportunity to appreciate just how sturdy, versatile, and wonderful these songs truly are.
“Elise possesses a flair for crafting a timeless song into her own,” says Wright. “She’s got voice filled with emotion, strength, and credibility. You almost forget how good the original is because hers gives such flavor to that which is already good!”
In LeGrow’s capable hands, Etta James’ “Can’t Seem To Shake It” brims over with Ronnie Specter sass, while The Radiants’ deep cut “Hold On” channels Motown-era Jackson 5, and “Can’t Judge A Book” mashes up “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” and “You Can’t Catch Me” into a feel-good anthem of individuality and self-expression. Surprise guest Questlove takes over drumming duties for “Long and Lonely Nights” (his father, Lee Andrews, wrote and recorded the original version for Chess in 1957), but the most unexpected musical reinvention on the album has to be Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” which blossoms anew here as a slow burning, stripped down, vocal-and-guitar beauty.
“The arrangement actually dates back to 1978, when I came across the lyrics in a book on rock history at the Israeli kibbutz where I was volunteering as a teenager,” recounts Greenberg. “Though I’d never heard the actual song, I thought the lyrics were incredible. Since I didn’t have any way of listening to the record at the time, I just came up with my own melody to play the song around the campfire.”
Forty years later, that intimate, folk-inspired version, with all its reverence for Berry’s remarkable way with words, finally comes to life in LeGrow’s heartrendingly bittersweet performance.
Ultimately, it’s those consistently spectacular deliveries that make the album such a triumph. LeGrow’s voice combines fiery passion and sophisticated elegance, with just a hint of a rasp lurking beneath the surface to add a sandpapery grit to her silky vocals. It’s the kind of voice that could belong to a star in any era. It’s the kind of voice that could belong to a star in any genre. It’s the kind of voice that you’re about to fall in love with.