Les McCann reached the peak of his career at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival, recording "Compared to What" and "Cold Duck Time" for Atlantic (Swiss Movement) with Eddie Harris and Benny Bailey. Although he has done some worthwhile work since then, much of it has been anticlimactic.
McCann first gained some fame in 1956 when he won a talent contest in the Navy as a singer that resulted in an appearance on television on The Ed Sullivan Show. After being discharged, he formed a trio in Los Angeles. McCann turned down an invitation to join the Cannonball Adderley Quintet so he could work on his own music. He signed a contract with Pacific Jazz and in 1960 gained some fame with his albums Les McCann Plays the Truth and The Shout. His soulful, funk style on piano was influential and McCann's singing was largely secondary until the mid-'60s. He recorded many albums for Pacific Jazz during 1960-1964, mostly with his trio but also featuring Ben Webster, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Blue Mitchell, Stanley Turrentine, Joe Pass, the Jazz Crusaders, and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.
McCann switched to Limelight during 1965-1967 and then signed with Atlantic in 1968. After the success of Swiss Movement, McCann emphasized his singing at the expense of his playing and he began to utilize electric keyboards, notably on 1972's Layers. His recordings became less interesting to traditional jazz fans from that point on, and after his Atlantic contract ran out in 1976, McCann appeared on records much less often. However, he stayed popular and a 1994 reunion tour with Eddie Harris was quite successful. A mid-'90s stroke put him out of action for a time and weakened his keyboard playing (his band began carrying an additional keyboardist) but Les McCann returned to a more active schedule during 1996 and was still a powerful singer. His comeback was solidified by 2002's Pump It Up, a guest-heavy celebration of funk and jazz released on ESC Records.