Late one night in the summer of 1987, jazz pianist Oscar Peterson paid a visit to Cyndi Lauper — in a dream. He had recently heard her cover of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," and loved it. "He was playing the most beautiful music in my dream and he never stopped to look up, not even when he was talking to me," she recalls with fascination.
As she continues, the excitement in her pinched Queens drawl turns quiet and sincere. "From out of nowhere he says to me, 'You should make the old songs new again.' And I said, 'I can't! I don't know how, and I don't know any good piano players.' Not everyone can play like Oscar Peterson, and I really didn't think I could do it."
But that's exactly what she has done with her 11th studio album, Memphis Blues, a collection of standards by blues legends ranging from Robert Johnson to Muddy Waters. Taking such a bold step to embrace the origins of American music has brought new life to Lauper's career and attracted more critical attention than she's received since the '80s. Of course, her recurring role on Fox's "Bones" has raised her profile. Not to mention being fired from NBC's "The Celebrity Apprentice" after clashing with Donald Trump. But Memphis Blues bares the mark of a focused and invigorated Lauper who has found her muse after a long spell without direction.
Lauper's career as a singer began in 1980, when she appeared on a self-titled album released by new wave/rockabilly band Blue Angel before going solo. Her first record, 1984's She's So Unusual, made her the first female artist ever to land five top-10 hits from a debut.
"Goonies 'R' Good Enough," her theme song for Steven Spielberg's 1985 film The Goonies, along with massive MTV and radio hits, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," "Time After Time" and "She Bop," became definitive songs of the era. But mainstream interest in her work began to dwindle following the release of A Night to Remember in '89.
Since then her albums have dabbled in dance music, classic pop covers and deeply personal songwriter fare. A blues album has been on her agenda for several years, but it wasn't until starting her own imprint, Pulsar Records, through Mercer/Downtown that she found a label willing to get behind it.
To create a believable blues album, she knew that she had to leave New York. Memphis seemed appropriate, as it once stood as the crossroads between the Mississippi Delta — birthplace of the blues — and Chicago, where the music got a jolt of electricity when musicians started plugging guitars into amps.
"When you're standing in Memphis you can feel the history and the sense of place," Lauper says. "I guess you can make music anywhere, but for me it was all about going on a journey to this place and making it happen."
Lauper teamed up with producer Scott Bomar at Electraphonic Studio and recorded with a slew of staple blues players. Charlie Musselwhite's harmonica barrels like a freight train through the album's opener, "Just Your Fool," and Allen Toussaint's New Orleans barrelhouse piano adds a sparkling fine point to "Shattered Dreams" and "Mother Earth." Jonny Lang, Ann Peebles, Kenny Brown and B.B. King also leave their mark on the album. Lauper's baby doll croon takes on a mature temperance that sways from scorned lover on "Early in the Morning" to fiery seductress on "Romance in the Dark."
Memphis Blues doesn't reinvent the wheel by any means, but it does reinvent Lauper as a lady who still wants to have fun. Her voice is a perfect match for the gritty guitar work and languid pace of it all — even though it took more than 20 years for that fateful dream with Oscar Peterson to culminate with such unexpected depth.
"After the record was done and we were all sitting around the studio listening to the songs, I was really struck when Allen played the descending piano line in 'Shattered Dream,'" she recalls. "That's when I realized that I had finally done what that dream told me to do a long time ago."
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