Skip to content

Soul-Jazz pioneer Les McCann dies at 88

Les McCann to the left

A mainstay of late 20th century pop charts

Prolific jazz pianist and vocalist Les McCann has died at the age of 88. He passed away on Dec. 29 at an assisted living facility in Los Angeles after an extended bout with pneumonia.

Born Leslie Coleman McCann on Sept. 23, 1935, in Lexington, Ky., he was brought up in a musical family, and played drums and the tuba in his high school marching band. Aside from a few piano lessons as a child, he was largely self-taught on the keyboards that became the foundation of his career.

Enlistment in the Navy brought him notoriety as he won a singing contest, leading to an appearance on the Ed Sullivan television variety show. A move to California enabled him to form his own musical trio, as his career gained momentum with a series of albums on the Pacific Jazz label. His infectious, gospel-infused style struck a chord with audiences, abetted by his increasing reliance on his vocals, culminating in the 1969 hit album “Swiss Movement,” recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival.” The Gene Harris penned single “Compared to What" sold millions of copies, and reflected McCann’s growing interest in protest songs and social commentary, a sentiment shared by the record buying public.

“The president, he’s got his war/ Folks don’t know just what it’s for/ Nobody gives us rhyme or reason/ Have one doubt, they call it treason.”

Compositions like"Cold Duck Time (a reference to the sparkling wine popular in urban America)," “Fish This Week but Next Week Chitlings,” “One More Ham Hock Please,” and“The Harlem Buck Dance Strut,” provided another touchstone with his largely inner city-with roots in the south clientele.

This enhanced his rapport with the crowds that flocked to see his live performances.

“I like to be funny. I like to mess with people, shake ’em up a little bit,” he said in explaining his approach to performing.

Along the way he made another significant contribution to pop culture when he discovered a then unknown singer named Roberta Flack in a Washington, D.C. nightclub.

The truest testament to the timelessness of his music was its embrace by rap and hip-hop artists at the turn of the century and beyond. The chart topping hits culled from his prolific discography include The Notorious B.I.G.'s “10 Crack Commandments (sampled from McCann's "Vallarta", ”A Tribe Called Quest’s “After Hours (from McCann’s “North Carolina”), and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s "Tha Next Episode (from "Go on and Cry").”

In later years, his interests expanded to include painting and photography, culminating in the publication of a coffee table sized book, entitled “Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann (2015).” A decade’s long document of his association with the leading musicians of the late 20th century, it’s release was covered by Our Weekly on June 12, 2015 (