Les McCann, the legendary jazz pianist who has been sampled countless times and is perhaps best known for the protest song “Compared to What,” died Friday at a Los Angeles area hospital, his manager confirmed. No cause of death was announced, although he had been hospitalized last week after contracting pneumonia; he was 88. The news was first reported by NBC Bay Area.
Also an accomplished singer, McCann fused jazz and R&B in his work and provided a bedrock for many songs in the early years of hip-hop, including songs by the Notorious B.I.G. (“10 Crack Commandments”), A Tribe Called Quest (“After Hours”), Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre (“The Next Episode”), Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Warren G., Slick Rick and many others.
McCann was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1935 and grew up in a musical family. He played tuba and drums in his school’s marching band and was largely self-taught as a pianist; he said he’d only received a few weeks of lessons as a child. During a stint in the U.S. Navy, he won a singing contest that led to a 1956 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” at the time the most popular variety show on television.
After being discharged, he moved to Los Angeles and formed a trio in Los Angeles, declining an invitation to join the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. He signed with the Pacific Jazz label and first rose to fame with his 1960 albums “Les McCann Plays the Truth” and “The Shout,” which established his, rollicking, soulful playing. During this prolific era he worked primarily with his trio but also Ben Webster, Stanley Turrentine, Joe Pass, the Jazz Crusaders and others.
He signed with Atlantic in 1968 and released his cover of Gene McDaniel’s “Compared to What,” a collaboration with saxophonist Eddie Harris, the following year; McCann had originally recorded the song in 1966 for his “Plays the Hits” album, but a live version with Harris, released on the “Swiss Movement” album, is the one that became a hit. It is arguably the best known of more than a hundred released versions of the song.
In 1971, he and Harris were part of a coterie of R&B and rock artists — including Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, Santana, and Ike & Tina Turner — played a 14-hour-long concert in Accra, Ghana, for an audience of more than 100,000 people. The concert was recorded for the documentary film “Soul to Soul.”
Following that success, McCann began emphasizing his singing and electric keyboard to a greater extent, and his career gradually lost momentum, although he continued to perform regularly for the following decades, although a stroke during the 1990s limited his keyboard playing, although he continued to work extensively as a singer.
McCann released more than 60 albums over the course of his career, the most recent being a deluxe reissue of his “Never a Dull Moment! Coast to Coast Live 1966-67” album. In its liner notes, Quincy Jones wrote, “: “Les McCann has been a musical force of nature since he burst on the scene in the early 60’s. Whenever I heard him live or on record, he always did the unexpected.” McCann’s longtime friend Roberta Flack added, “Les and I found each other in the musical world of the tumultuous ’60s. Les heard deeply what I was saying and his recommendation of me to Atlantic Records was a pivotal moment in my career. He is a giant in my world of music — a limitless creator, inspiration and friend.”