Born in 1935, Les 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 and sang along. The family resided in a small, one-story, wood frame house at 580 Thomas Street, which once ran parallel to Grinstead Street to the north. Grinstead at that time was also densely populated, though few residences have survived.
McCann is a self-taught musician, focusing on piano early in his career and then placing more emphasis 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.”
Having left home at 17 to join the Navy, he later 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, 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 ever since, despite suffering from a stroke in the 1990s.
Follow this link to McCann’s live performance with Eddie Harris singing and playing Compared to What at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival.