ANNIVERSARIES: Bessie Smith Born 115 Years Ago

Bessie_SmithBessie Smith, born April 15, 1894 (though census records conflict) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, wasn't the first female blues singer, but she was called the Empress of the Blues for good reason. She rose from poverty (orphaned by the age of nine) by joining Ma Rainey's Rabbit Foot Minstrels in 1912; by the time Bessie made her first recordings, she had developed most of her mature style. Soon after, she was the highest-paid black entertainer in the country. Smith was a big woman with a big, powerful voice to match, not merely loud but truly full. Her phrasing featured slides and scoops that lent expressiveness to her singing and variety to the simple melodies -- and helped her disguise a narrow vocal range.

Smith’s recording career has been voluminously documented via five Legacy box sets totaling 10 CDs, proceeding mostly in chronological order. Smith worked with Columbia for most of her career, and the few recordings she made after that association ended were on OKeh, which they owned, so these sets really are the complete document of her surviving recordings.

Bessie_Smith_1The Complete Recordings, vol. 1 thus starts with her first two issued recordings, "Down Hearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues," from February 1923. "Down Hearted Blues" sold 800,000 copies that year, and the two CDs here demonstrate her quick rise to immense popularity: starting with her second 78, another 36 sides were cut within a year. On all but two of the recordings through September 1923, she is accompanied only by piano, at first by the stiff, unimaginative Clarence Williams, later by the more adept (if hardly virtuoso) Fletcher Henderson. On "Jail-house Blues" (the first song on which she got a writing credit), the piano playing of Irving Johns immediately stands out for its relative ornateness. It doesn't matter either way; the focus is firmly on her magnificent voice. When Henderson is joined by Don Redman on clarinet for two tracks from December 1923 the results rank among this set's high points: "Chicago Bound Blues" and "Mistreating Daddy." (That team returned in January 1924, but "Haunted House Blues" is a trivial novelty and "Eavesdropper's Blues" isn't much better.)

Some songs are not strictly blues. There are "hokum" songs such as "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine" (a classic double entendre), and pop songs such as "My Sweetie Went Away." But Bessie's vocal style is similar regardless of any given song's origin. Many of the characters Smith puts herself into tend to have difficult lives, specifically love lives. On "Outside of That," she sings of a boyfriend who "knocked out both of my teeth," but "outside of that, he's alright with me." On the immortal "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do," she declares, "I swear I won't call no copper / If I'm beat up by my poppa." (Given the abusive behavior of her husband, she was singing these lines from experience.) In more general terms, "Mama's Got the Blues," opens with the immortal couplet "Some people say that the worried blues ain't bad / but it's the worriedest old feeling that I've ever had," lines much varied throughout blues history.

Bessie_Smith_2Smith's prolific recording scheduled continued apace; The Complete Recordings, vol. 2 covers the period from April 8, 1924 to November 18, 1925, a total of 37 tracks among which are some of her most famous recordings. The 1924 material finds Smith in roughly the same groove as her earlier work. Her pianists are Johns, Fred Longshaw, or, much more frequently, Henderson; usually the pianist is augmented by one or two horns. Redman's alto saxophone playing is pretty hokey at this point, but then, the sax was still considered something of a novelty and awaited further definition of its capabilities (Bob Fuller sounds equally corny when he plays alto with Bessie in 1925; Redman sounds better when he appears on clarinet elsewhere in this set). The day after Redman's two alto sax appearances, he's replaced by trombonist Charlie Green, whose style is more idiomatically bluesy. Later in the year, cornet player Joe Smith, a Bessie favorite, appears and adds tasty licks.

But it's when a far more famous cornet player was brought in on January 14, 1925 that sparks really flew. Louis Armstrong had recently arrived in New York City to join Henderson's big band, but doesn't sound like the big city fazed him in the slightest. With Longshaw switching to harmonium (reed organ), he, Smith, and Armstrong cut an immortal rendition of "The St. Louis Blues" that's notable for its organic, easily flowing interaction. Longshaw was back at the piano for another classic, the humorous "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon" ("but you done broke down").

On May 6, Smith was recorded for the first time using the new electric process (before this, everything she'd done had used the acoustic process in which she sang into a large horn). This new technique captured larger groups better, so Henderson and his Hot Six (Joe Smith, Charlie Green, clarinetist Buster Bailey, barely audible tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Dixon on banjo, and Bob Escudero on tuba) accompanied Bessie on another classic, "Cake Walkin' Babies (From Home)," and "The Yellow Dog Blues." Later that month, Bessie and Armstrong reunited for another unforgettable recording, "Careless Love Blues."

Many other tracks are jokey, inconsequential fare ("Dixie Flyer Blues" with its train-whistle imitations; the strained party atmosphere of "At the Christmas Ball"), and even fine songs such as "Nobody's Blues but Mine" and "I Ain't Got Nobody" are marred by Fuller's vibrato-heavy alto sax work (though Smith's rousing vocal in the latter's stop-time section is stunning). But the set ends on another high note with "I've Been Mistreated and I Don't Like It," with Joe Smith, Green, and Henderson backing Bessie on a ditty that was all too autobiographical considering her husband Jack Gee's behavior.

Bessie_Smith_3Smith was a superstar by 1925. This didn't automatically translate into greater records, but certainly there's plenty of excellent material on The Complete Recordings, vol. 3, covering sessions from November 20, 1925 to February 16, 1928. The quality of her sidemen was generally high through this period. Some of the best tracks find Smith's fully assured vocals accompanied by fluent piano virtuoso James P. Johnson. "Back Water Blues" is especially striking in both Johnson's ornate accompaniment and Smith's troubling delivery of an apocalyptic lyric. When cornetist Joe Smith is present, his lively, exquisitely nuanced playing always adds an extra spark. "Lost Your Head Blues" is such a great song that it would be a highlight under any circumstances, but with Henderson on piano and Smith's slinky fills -- and, of course, Smith's mournful yet emphatic singing -- it's a masterpiece. Henderson's sessions always include fine sidemen, with clarinetists Redman and Buster Bailey also noteworthy and four March 2, 1927 songs including a rousing six-piece band.

All is not perfect. There's some rhythmically clunky piano backing by Williams, an early Smith accompanist making a surprise return, although of his four tracks, two are oddball classics: "Squeeze Me" and "What's the Matter Now?" And when Porter Grainger appears as Smith's music director and pianist starting with a September 27, 1927 session, one suspects that the reason the recording balance favors Smith so much more than usual is that it was obvious that his pianism was inferior. Nor did Grainger use particularly good sidemen; nobody's going to cue up these sides to hear guitarist Lincoln Conaway or saxophonist/clarinetist Ernest Elliott. But only five Grainger tracks are included in this box.

Fortunately, there are still sessions after Grainger first appears led by Henderson or Longshaw. And if some of the material in this set is occasionally hokey ("Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," etc.) as Columbia apparently went all-out for mainstream success, Smith and some of the better players manage to redeem it.

Bessie_Smith_4The 1928-31 recordings on The Complete Recordings, vol. 4 don’t make for as thrilling a collection as the earlier sets, but it's still got its moments, and the weaknesses certainly don't include Smith's magnificent singing. The set starts strongly with two items from a February 1928 session, "Standin' in the Rain Blues" and "It Won't Be You." Smith wrote both, which helps, but it's the accompanying trio of cornetist Demus Dean, trombonist Charlie Green, and Longshaw that makes these tracks stand out. Another Smith-penned tune is among highlights of the set: "Poor Man's Blues," from August 1928. The Depression was over a year away (one imagines that it would make her stunning May 1929 reading of Ida Cox's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" resonate with more people), and it's clear that "Poor Man's Blues" is about racial divisions rather than economic classes. Smith sings it with intense dignity, and the uninspiring accompaniments of Grainger, Fuller, and Elliott are helpfully augmented by trombonist Joe Williams. Though Williams is anything but subtle, he adds an enlivening rawness here and on the nearly as fine Smith tune "Please Help Me Get Him Out of My Mind," and even the tacky "Me and My Gin," which like many of the non-Smith tunes of her sessions with Grainger is more a humorous novelty than anything artful (and the humor value of lines such as "keep me full of liquor and I'll sho' be nice to you" doesn't seem so high nowadays).

The worst of this sort of low humor includes Grainger-penned ditties such as "Put It Right Here (Or Keep It Out There)" and "Yes Indeed He Do!" with its depiction of supposed domestic bliss that sounds frighteningly dysfunctional to modern ears. But when Grainger's not involved, such trivialities as "I'm Wild About That Thing" and "You've Got to Give Me Some" from a 1929 session are more endearing. Williams may not be the most imaginative pianist, but here he's paired with Eddie Lang on guitar, who adds adroitly musical fills. The best playing comes on the eight tracks, from August and October 1929 sessions, where James P. Johnson is magnificent as the sole accompanist. Two of those are among Smith's finest compositions, "It Makes My Love Come Down" and "Wasted Life Blues."

Two unusual 1930 efforts are "On Revival Day (A Rhythmic Spiritual Song)" and "Moan, You Moaners," with Johnson on piano and the Bessemer Singers male vocal group. They're not real spirituals, and Smith doesn't have to change her singing style at all, but she sings with great fervor and the arrangements have a most attractive flavor. The sort of urban, sophisticated blues Smith sang was starting to look like a commercially spent genre by 1930, and Smith was recorded less.

Bessie_Smith_5The Complete Recordings, vol. 5 opens with a pair of November 1931 recordings that were her last for Columbia. They're apparently with pianist Clarence Williams, as the track listing shows and as aural evidence suggests, since the stiff rhythms and simple figurations match his style, but Albertson's notes credit the more adept Fred Longshaw. But the sound quality, especially in recording Smith's vocals, is an improvement over earlier efforts. The double entendre lyrics on "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" -- and the enthusiasm with which Smith delivers -- have to be heard to be believed.

Next up are four 1933 tracks recorded for Okeh, produced by John Hammond near the start of his career. By then, Smith was moving away from her rawer older style into something jazzier, including "standards," but the mostly innocuous numbers here fall somewhere in between; the most famous is "Gimme a Pigfoot," describing a Harlem "rent party." Hammond matched Smith to fine (and racially integrated) jazz backing, however, with trumpeter Frank Newton, trombonist Jack Teagarden, and tenor saxophonist Chu Berry prominent soloists and the whole band led by pianist Buck Washington (of Buck & Bubbles fame). For that matter, clarinet superstar Benny Goodman wandered into the studio for "Pigfoot," although he's barely noticeable. There's a hint here of how Smith could have developed had she been allowed to record the jazz she was singing more and more, but the economics of the Depression, and then her 1937 death, kept that style from being documented.

Vol. 5 is filled out with alternate takes from earlier years that had been discovered after the preceding volumes had been compiled, the nearly 15-minute soundtrack to the 1929 movie St. Louis Blues, and 72 minutes of excerpts from series annotator Chris Albertson's early 1970s interviews of Bessie niece Ruby Smith (if you’re curious about Bessie’s freewheeling sexual proclivities, including bisexuality, Ruby will fill you in -- salty language included). Bessie Smith fully deserves the thoroughness of this series. - Steve Holtje

Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.

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