Pianist Les McCann, Soul-Jazz Standard-Bearer, Dies at 88


McCann’s deep roots in gospel and the blues gave his music a gritty, earthy quality and a large supply of soulful licks.

(Photo: C. Andrew Hovan)

Les McCann, a jazz pianist and vocalist who helped soul-jazz keep a foothold in mainstream pop music — in the process becoming a seemingly bottomless sampling resource for hip-hop artists — died Dec. 29 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 88.

His death was reported by his longtime manager, Alan Abrahams, to NBC News. The cause of death was pneumonia, with which McCann had presented at the hospital a week prior to his passing.

A native of Kentucky, McCann moved after serving in the U.S. Navy to California and built a successful career as a jazz pianist. His real breakthrough, however, came after a decade in music with the 1969 release of “Compared To What,” a gospel-charged antiwar song on which McCann played (with tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris) and sang. The million-seller gave McCann a new career momentum, pioneering the use of electronic keyboards in his music while also increasing his profile as a vocalist.

McCann’s deep roots in gospel and the blues gave his music a gritty, earthy quality and a large supply of soulful licks. These later proved irresistible to hip-hop DJs and producers: According to the online database WhoSampled, McCann’s records have been sampled more than 300 times since the early 1990s. His music has powered the work of artists including Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Massive Attack and Logic.

McCann’s accessibility and pop success were not the product of A&R or producer pressure, but entirely of his own making, and it was a style he stuck with even when it fell out of fashion in the 1980s and ’90s. “I didn’t need to work with anyone trying to tell me what to play,” he emphasized in a 2015 interview with All About Jazz. “All the producer has to do is just back me up. Tell me if you like it or you don’t, but it really doesn’t matter. … To me, my jazz is personal. You can’t mess with my heart. And you can’t mess with my music because my music is my heart.”

Leslie Coleman McCann was born Sept. 23, 1935, in Lexington, Kentucky, to James and Anna McCann. His mother instilled music into her son (and his seven siblings) by singing opera as she worked around the house. His father was also an avid jazz fan, and McCann recalled that he took a few piano lessons when he was 6 years old. After that, however, his childhood music experiences consisted of singing in the church choir and playing tuba in his school marching band.

His interest in music became more serious when he joined the Navy in 1954 and was posted in San Francisco. He taught himself the piano by studying the records of musicians like Erroll Garner, and also became an accomplished enough singer to win a talent contest and appear on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. After his discharge, McCann stayed in San Francisco, where he worked as a doorman at the famous Blackhawk jazz club, then formed a trio (Les McCann Ltd.) that debuted at the Purple Onion in 1959. The next year, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he signed to Pacific Jazz Records and made his first recording, Les McCann Ltd. Plays The Truth, with bassist Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Ron Jefferson.

McCann built a successful career across the 1960s, first on the West Coast, then on the national and international jazz circuits. In 1969 he was invited to perform at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where his trio joined forces with tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris and trumpeter Benny Bailey. The concert was recorded and released on Atlantic Records as Swiss Movement, opening with Eugene McDaniels’ protest song “Compared To What.” The song was a hit on both the pop and R&B charts, propelling its parent album to no. 29 on the Billboard 200 and to Platinum status.

McCann became a jazz star, reuniting with Harris for 1971’s Second Movement and recording a successful string of soul-jazz records throughout the 1970s. He put a new emphasis on his vocals (which had only been occasional to that point), but also innovated with clavinet, Moog synthesizer and other electronic instruments. In 1971 he appeared in the film Soul to Soul, a documentary about a gala Independence Day concert in Accra, Ghana, that placed McCann alongside Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, and other African American stars. Among these was Roberta Flack, whom McCann had seen performing in Washington, D.C., and recommended to Atlantic, resulting in one of the label’s best-selling artists of the era.

McCann soldiered on with the musical style he loved even as it lost currency in the 1980s and 1990s; by the time he suffered a severe stroke in 1995, most of his income came from royalties for his hip-hop samples. The stroke damaged his dexterity, forcing him to rely increasingly on vocals and less on piano. However, he improved over the next few years and was able to return to live performance to support the release of his 2002 album Pump It Up. Occasional recordings appeared afterward, with the last new material issued in 2018.

Never A Dull Moment, a compilation of live recordings McCann made in 1966–’67, was released in December on Resonance Records. DB

  • Herb_Alpert_-_Press_Photo_01_%28credit_Dewey_Nicks%29_copy.jpg

    “I like to just click on songs that touched me and see if I could do them in a personal way — especially if it’s a well-known song,” Alpert said about selecting material for his new album.

  • Les_McCann_by_C_Andrew_Hovan_copy.jpg

    McCann’s deep roots in gospel and the blues gave his music a gritty, earthy quality and a large supply of soulful licks.

  • 1_Black_Men_of_Labor_Second_Line_Parade_copy.jpg

    The Black Men of Labor Club leads a second line parade, from the documentary City of a Million Dreams.

  • image002_copy.jpg

    ​The Blue Note Quintet includes Gerald Clayton, Immanuel Wilkins, Joel Ross, Kendrick Scott and Matt Brewer. The all-star collective embarks on a North American tour this month.

  • 24_Emmet_Cohen_GABRIELAGABRIELAA_copy_2.JPG

    Emmet Cohen, right, with one of his heroes, Houston Person.