Leslie Coleman "Les" McCann (born September 23, 1935, in Lexington, Kentucky) is an American soul jazz pianist and vocalist whose biggest successes came as a crossover artist into R&B and soul.
An early musical success for McCann was his winning of a Navy talent contest for singing; this led to an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. McCann's main career began in the early 1960s when he recorded as a pianist with his trio for Pacific Jazz Records.
In 1969, Atlantic Records released Swiss Movement, a recording of McCann with frequent collaborator, saxophonist Eddie Harris, and guest trumpeter Benny Bailey at that year's Montreux Jazz Festival. The album contained the song "Compared To What", and both the album and the single were huge Billboard pop chart successes. "Compared To What" featured political criticism of the Vietnam War. The song was not written by McCann; fellow Atlantic composer/artist Eugene McDaniels wrote it years earlier. "Compared To What" was initially recorded and released by soul vocalist Roberta Flack. Her version appeared as the opening track on her debut recording, First Take (1969).
After the success of Swiss Movement, McCann — primarily a piano player — began to emphasize his rough-hewn vocals more. He became an innovator in the soul jazz style, merging jazz with funk, soul and world rhythms; much of his early 1970s music prefigures the Stevie Wonder albums of that decade. He was among the first jazz musicians to include electric piano, clavinet, and synthesizer in his music.
In 1971, he and Harris were part of a group of soul, R&B, and rock performers — including Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers, Santana and Ike & Tina Turner — who flew to Accra, Ghana for a historic 14-hour concert before more than 100,000 Ghanaians. The March 6 concert was recorded for the documentary film Soul To Soul. In 2004 the movie was released on DVD with an accompanying soundtrack album.
Les McCann discovered Roberta Flack and obtained an audition which resulted in a recording contract with Atlantic Records.
A mild stroke in the mid 1990s sidelined McCann for a while, but in 2002 he released a new album, Pump it Up. McCann has also exhibited as a painter and photographer.
Born in 1935 in Lexington, Kentucky, Les McCann is a self-taught musician (other than the four piano lessons he took as a youth from a nice old lady who lived in the neighborhood). In the early fifties, he left the South and joined the Navy. While stationed in California, he took every opportunity to visit San Francisco's jazz clubs, where he first experienced Miles Davis and his music. His first major influence though, was pianist Erroll Garner, who shared the same exuberance and bursting vocalizations. After his discharge from the military, McCann moved to Los Angeles and formed a trio, Les McCann Ltd., which became a favorite on the Sun Strip in the late fifties.
Always fueled by his renegade spirit, Les McCann was recommended by Miles Davis to play with Cannonball Adderly, but turned it down in order to form his own band. In 1960, McCann was signed to the L.A.-based Pacific Jazz label owned by producer Nick Venet, who recognized Les signature soul groove style that mothered an entire movement of back-to-the-roots jazz. McCann became the label's top-selling artist, debuting with Plays the Truth (1960). He also co-headed albums with legendary labelmates such as organist Richard "Groove" Holmes, saxman Ben Webster, The Jazz Crusaders and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.
McCann's laid-back personality has always been an opening for musicians to perform together. 1960 & 62 Antibes Jazz Festival was a hit as he shared the stage with Ray Charles and Count Basie. The year after he toured Europe with Zoot Sims and Charlie Byrd. He would move constantly, playing in countless sessions with the greatest names in jazz. He co-produced and co-headlined the debut album from Lou Rawls, Stormy Monday (1960), and guested on each other's records with Stanley Turrentine, who played sax on McCann's In New York (1960) and McCann on Turrentine's That's Where It's At (1960). In the early seventies, McCann heard Roberta Flack for the first time at a nightclub in Washington D.C., and immediately became her champion, as he did similarly with Mahalia Jackson and Nancy Wilson. After a brief stint on the Limelight label (subsidiary of Mercury Records), which boasted Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Art Blakey, McCann signed to Atlantic Records in 1967, his first major label deal.
Les is best known for his work in the late 60s and early 70s with partner/saxman Eddie Harris, whom he first encountered at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The resulting album, Swiss Movement (1960), was a top selling jazz record, and the single "Compared to What" sold platinum. The same year, Much Les, without Harris, hit hard with the ballad "With These Hands." Second Movement (1971), reunited McCann and Harris, and acclaimed recordings such as Invitation to Openness (1972), the double-record Live at Montreux (1973), and Layers (1973) followed. The latter was a revolutionary, improvisational experiment that included 15 musicians and one 27-minute song. Les McCann helped pioneer the use of electric piano, clavinet, and synthesizer, starting with this work which was one of the earliest electronic jazz albums.
The early eighties saw the creation of McCann's Magic Band, which has recorded a number of independently-released albums and featured Jeff Elliott, Keith Anderson, Tony St. James, and Abraham Laboriel. His last release, On the Soul Side (MusicMasters 1994), featured his Magic Band and once again reunited him with Eddie Harris and Lou Rawls.
As if a lifetime of musical success is not enough, Les' creations go beyond the keys. His personal relationships with jazz legends such as Miles Davis, Art Blakey, and Duke Ellington as well as many other great historical characters, have been documented in a collection of more than 8000 photographs that Les has taken over the years. As a serious photographer, Les has built a darkroom in his home, and has sold a significant number of pieces. A large exhibition of his work will be exhibited at this year's Montreux Jazz Festival, reproduced by Graham Nash (Nash Editions). In addition, Les is an exhibited painter, primarily a watercolorist with a particular interest in flowers. His work is hanging in two galleries, in Scottsdale, AZ, and Santa Barbara, CA, as well as in his home, where he entertains private showings. After the stroke, Les has become remarkably prolific, discovering that painting and maneuvering the camera are both therapeutic and strengthening. Les' expression as a visual artist communicates similar vibes of freshness, experimentation, and peace as does his music.
Les McCann is an inspiration, not only as an artist but because he is not afraid of anything. He comments, "I never plan the future," which leaves him with nothing to fear, and more space in which to create. His teaming with Alan Abrahams and the musicians on Listen Up! is brilliant and healing as well … he remembers favorably the spontaneous energy created in the September 1995 recording session and notes that "it was evidently meant to be. Thanks to the people who have helped me, including the musicians, the hospitals – the incredible amount of angels in my life."
In 1997 Les teamed up with Joja Wendt, Europe's hottest pianist, resulting in the outstanding recording Pacifique. In 1998, 32 jazz released "How's your Mother?" a classic live performance recorded at the Village Vanguard in 1967.
In 2002 his album Pump it Up was released which is one of his funkiest outputs - produced again by Abrahams performing songs from Bill Evans, Bill Whiters, Dean Brown and himself, backed up by e.g. Billy Preston, Marcus Miller or Abraham Laboriel.