McCann grew up watching his father draw on their front porch after work in the evenings and listening to opera with his mother while she cleaned house and sang along.
McCann is a self-taught musician, focusing on piano early in his career and then placing more emphases on singing over time. He began his relationship with music at the Lyric Theater, where he worked and helped visiting artists with moving and carrying equipment. In an interview for the Oxford American, McCann said, “I just wanted to be there—the shows that came there! Oh, God, they were great. I saw more than half the people I [later] got to know in the business before I was in it—Louis Jordan, Louis Armstrong.”
He left home at 17 in the 1950s to join the Navy. In the same Oxford American interview, he explained how this choice was motivated by music. “I wanted to go to the Navy School of Music. In high school, whenever instruments were passed out by the school district, my school got whatever was left, whatever the other schools did not want. So I played an instrument called sousaphone, a big horn in the back of the band. I played it all through my last two years of school, only to find out when I joined the Navy it was an instrument no one else used. (Now you see ’em in every marching band.) So they sent me off to Cincinnati to take a test. They brought out a tuba, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is not what I play.’ They said, ‘This is all we use.’ So I said, “Please do not send me back to Lexington.’”
McCann was stationed in California and fell into the nightclub scene where he met many influential jazz performers. He attended music school in Los Angeles, but soon left for LA City College. He attributes his whole career to his time at the college, where he met diverse and inspiring people from different cultures.
While in the Navy, in 1956, he won a talent competition for his singing which led to an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. He landed his first contract after Miles Davis heard him play in a nightclub and spread word about McCann’s talent. Les described the moment Davis approached him, saying “The big names had already played, so I started playing, and when I got offstage, Miles came over to me: ‘How come you didn’t play when I was up there?’ I couldn’t even speak. He was my favorite of all musicians. He said, “Man, I like the way you play—very soulful.’”
In 1960 he signed a contract with Pacific Jazz and recorded Les McCann Plays the Truth. The Truth was the most popular record the company had ever produced. McCann remembers his experience recording, “I knew that the arms of something good were around me. I learned back then that one of the best things about me was being able to work with someone else and make a meaningful record. Lou Rawls, Roberta Flack, Stanley Turrentine.”
He has continued playing, singing, and recording since, despite suffering from a stroke in the 1990s. In 2002 he recorded a new album, Pump it Up. McCann named the height of his career, in which he recorded Invitation to Openness in the early 70s, “the God years.” “I had a dream, and it came out perfectly,” he said.
Follow this link to McCann’s live performance with Eddie Harris singing and playing Compared to What at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival.