In the house of blues

Last updated 05:00 11/04/2014
hugh laurie
REUTERS

CENTRE STAGE: Hugh Laurie performs with his band during the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in 2012.

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Hugh Laurie was only 10 when he heard the sound that would change him forever. The song on the radio was probably Willie Dixon, or maybe Muddy Waters, but it was not so much the musician as "that magical blue note".

"I heard this sound and it was like an electric shock. I just knew this was going to be me and it was going to be me for all time. It has stuck with me ever since. I've never got over it.

"I've all kinds of other things in my life, I look back at an early haircut of mine or shoes that I wore, and I think, 'God, what were you thinking?' But this will always be with me."

In his 54 years, Laurie has achieved international acclaim as a comic, writer and actor. In a career divided neatly across the Atlantic, we first knew him with Stephen Fry in Jeeves and Wooster and A Bit of Fry & Laurie. And, of course, Blackadder.

In the United States, he emerged with a convincing American accent in the medical television series House, which revealed the true depth of his acting talent. At one point, it was the top scripted show in the US, and the most watched show in the world.

Last year he starred in Kiwi director Andrew Adamson's Mr Pip, adapted from Wellington writer Lloyd Jones' novel.

But there was a backbeat to Laurie's acting career. His musical talent – awakened when he heard that blue note on the radio – would nudge its way forward. In House, his character Dr Gregory House had a Hammond organ at home, and would pick up Gibson Les Paul electric guitars. Laurie's musical ability was always seeking an audience.

That Laurie is forging a new career path runs counter to a very British upbringing that had its roots a long way from the Mississippi. He grew up near Oxford, the youngest of four children. When he was 7, he had a miserable experience of learning the piano under the tutelage of Mrs Hare. "I apologise to any of her descendants if I've badmouthed her," he says. "But yes, it wasn't a happy relationship. I just couldn't stand the way it was taught and, to be honest, I still can't. That's just the way it is."

The teacher and her reluctant pupil were slogging their way through the grade-one piano book when they got to the page with Swanee River, the closest thing to a blues song in the book. Mrs Hare decided against it. "She wasn't having it," Laurie says.

His doctor father won an Olympic gold medal in rowing at the 1948 London Games and at Cambridge Laurie excelled in the sport. But a bout of glandular fever ended his rowing career and saw him drawn to the stage.

But even then, his musical talent and passion were evident to those around him, including Stephen Fry, who believed his friend's music would eventually find an expression.

However, there is an automatic scepticism when we hear of actors turning musicians, and it was no different when word got out that Laurie was planning to record an album of New Orleans blues.

"When Laurie released Let Them Talk in 2011, initially, there was a collective groan," wrote Barry Kerzner in American Blues Scene magazine. "Then, what do you know? People started actually listening to the mostly blues-based album, and found out that it was good. How about that?"

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Laurie approached Joe Henry, the singer, songwriter and Grammy-award winner, to produce the record. In a 2011 article in The New York Times, Henry told Gavin Edwards he checked Laurie out first. "I did a little bit of homework," he said, "and Elvis Costello told me in an email that he had visited a set with Hugh, who had been playing piano during a break. Elvis said: 'This guy is a musician before he's anything else. He's probably a better musician than an actor."'

Laurie is well aware of the doubters who emerge when an actor pursues a music career. "The funny thing is that as soon as I started contemplating this thing and, in fact, signed on to do it, then of course all you see in newspapers is, 'Oh, here's another bloody actor who's done it'."

He understands the wariness, as he would react the same way.

"I didn't expect any less from the audience or from the press or anybody else because that's what I would have felt and I didn't blame anybody," he says. "All I decided early on was that the only way that I could establish my sincerity was to first of all do it as well as I could do it, and also keep doing it. Because I think you get points for sticking around in this thing."

Laurie's first album, a collection of 15 cover songs, was an international hit, which, says Glen Casebeer, co-founder of American Blues Scene, opened some eyes and ears, but it is his second album, Didn't It Rain, that has seen him accepted by the greater blues community.

"Hugh Laurie is quite competent as a blues player and one gets the sense that his style is rather timeless and he'd fit in just as well in the 40s or 50s as he does in the 21st century," Casebeer says.

Laurie says performing with the band is highly addictive. "There's just nothing like it."

While it is all new to him, Laurie's band members have a breadth of experience – some with careers spanning three decades. "I would understand if they took a more jaundiced view of the whole thing," he says. "Actually, they seem to be having the time of their lives, which I'm thrilled by. For me, I am 10 years old again.

"That doesn't speak well of the show, does it?" he adds. "You don't want to go and see a load of 10-year-olds, but to have that sort of exuberance and enthusiasm ...

"When we were doing House, I used to think of it in a very musical sort of way, that we were a little sort of chamber orchestra trying to fit with each other's feeling of tempo and trying to find a pitch that would tell the story in the right way. Trying to blend with each other in a way that would tell the story.

"I think likewise in music. It is about storytelling and a lot of the time it's about inhabiting a character and expressing emotions that this character feels going through these experiences."

THE DETAILS

Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band play Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre on April 16.

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- The Dominion Post

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