Hugh Laurie Is a Music Man in New Orleans for Great Performances
By Frank Barron
Playing the curmudgeonly Dr. House on the hit Fox TV medical series House is fun, according to star Hugh Laurie. But even more enjoyable for the British actor and comedian is indulging in his passion for music, especially the blues and jazz.
During the recent Television Critics Association summer press tour, Laurie made an appearance at the PBS interview sessions to talk about an upcoming show that will put the spotlight on the music he loves. “Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk — A Celebration of New Orleans Blues” is a Great Performances special, from executive producer David Horn, premiering next month on PBS.
For Laurie, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to go on “a personal journey into the heart and soul of the music.” And the cameras follow him around New Orleans and into the studio to record an album. The cameras also capture the musical magic of blues legends Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas. Plus his fellow countryman Sir Tom Jones joins him in some memorable sessions in the atmospheric setting of the historic Latrobe building in the French quarter.
“New Orleans is a unique city in many ways,” Laurie explains. “Musically unique, for historical reasons, with many musical influences. It has its own feel, like nowhere else I’ve ever been, and no kind of music that I’ve ever heard. And ever since I was a very small boy, it is the sounds of that city that have just thrilled me like no other.”
His background enjoying blues and jazz started when he was a child, listening to it on the radio. He reveals, “The first artist I ever got into was bluesman Muddy Waters, and I thought then that I was going to take the guitar route, although guitars and pianos speak to very different kinds of people. I play the piano. As for the record I made, I have no idea how it, or this documentary, will be received. But then, one never does know, as a performer. You put these things out in good faith, hoping they will touch people in some way.”
Laurie says he listens to all types of music on the radio, because he thinks “there is something slightly corrosive about the whole iPod experience of surrounding yourself with only your favorites. I don’t think any of us should be surrounded by all our favorites of anything.” He also listens to records, reporting, “I’ve gone back to vinyl.”
To indulge his passion for music, on breaks from his acting he has been a keyboardist with rock bands Poor White Trash, Little Big Horn, and Band From TV. Plus, he’s written screenplays and even a novel, The Gun Seller. A real Renaissance man.
Despite all his accomplishments over the past years, Laurie at 52 is modest about his success and calls it “just incredible. You sort of have to pinch yourself and ask, ‘Is this all a dream?’ This much good fortune should not happen to one person. And being as morbid as I am, of course, that only makes me anticipate bad fortune is a little bit down the road.”
Born in Oxford, England, Laurie became a student at Eton, then Cambridge, studying anthropology, before getting into a remarkable show business career. He was Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster seen on Masterpiece Theater years ago. In England he was big as half of the A Bit of Fry and Laurie comedy shows, thanks to Emma Thompson introducing him to Stephen Fry. He did the cult favorite Black Adder BBC series. In movies he was in Peter’s Friends, Sense & Sensibility, Flight of the Phoenix and the three Stuart Little films. He’s even done voice-overs on The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Would he ever think of giving up acting for a couple of years to just immerse himself in his beloved music scene? “Yes,” he says emphatically. “In fact I’ve had that in my mind for many years. When I was very young, I had this very romantic idea of playing in a jazz trio in Lisbon. I don’t know why I settled on Lisbon. I’ve never been there. But it’s always in the back of my mind that’s where I would wind up, playing in some hotel lobby somewhere.”
As for what he is doing now, Laurie says, “I had the most extraordinary experience doing my record and this ‘Celebration of New Orleans Blues’ documentary for Great Performances. So, if someone said we’d love for you to do another, I would be there in a shot. I can’t think of anything better. If that eventually takes me to that café in Lisbon, so be it. I would be very happy doing that.”