Les McCann, Influential Jazz Pianist and Vocalist, Dies at 88

His 1968 song “Compared to What” has been covered by John Legend and Robert Flack, sampled by Cypress Hill

Les McCann
American jazz pianist Les McCann performs live on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island on 12th July 1970. (CREDIT: David Redfern/Redferns)

Jazz pianist and vocalist Les McCann died Friday at the age of 88, his longtime manager Alan Abrahams confirmed to multiple media outlets. The musician was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital with pneumonia last week.

His biggest hit was the 1968 Vietnam war protest song “Compared to What,” which he recorded with saxophonist Eddie Harris and trumpeter Benny Bailey. It reached No. 35 on the Billboard R&B chart. McCann debuted the song live at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

“Compared to What,” written by Eugene Booker McDaniels, has been covered by numerous artists, including John Legend, Ray Charles and Roberta Flack. The lyrics, notably the lines “The president, he’s got his war / Folks don’t know just what it’s for / Nobody gives us rhyme or reason / Have one doubt, they call it treason,” have been sampled many times, including by hip-hop group Cypress Hill.

McCann was one of the first jazz musicians to include electric piano and synthesizer in his music. Pitchfork noted that many other musical performers have sampled McCann’s songs, including Massive Attack, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, A Tribe Called Quest, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G., De La Soul and Nas.

He first found fame with Pacific Jazz Records before signing with Atlantic. He later recorded albums for ABC Impulse and A&M.

McCann was left partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke in 1995, but released two more albums: “Pump It Up” in 2002 and “A Time Les Christmas” in 2018.

In 2023, Resonance Records released “Never a Dull Moment! Live from Coast to Coast 1966-1967,” a multi-record archival collection of his work.

His photographs were collected in the 2015 Fantagraphics book “Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann 1960-1980.”

He also served as sideman during his career to musicians including Lou Rawls, Stanley Turrentine, Herbie Mann and Bill Evans.


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