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8.120702 - SMITH, Bessie: Preachin' the Blues (1925-1927)
BESSIE SMITH Vol.3
‘Preachin’ The Blues’ Original Recordings 1925-1927
When Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, it changed the music industry. The completely unexpected success of her recording, the first time that a black singer had recorded the blues, showed the labels that there was a major untapped market for record sales among African-Americans. In hopes of duplicating the sales of “Crazy Blues,” record companies who had previously neglected the black market rushed to record every black female vocalist who could sing a blues, whether their background was in Southern theatres or Northern vaudeville. While many vocalists were only documented during 1921-23 on two or four titles before being dropped and forgotten, such major talents as Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox and Trixie Smith became stars. But the biggest discovery of all was Bessie Smith.
She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on 15 April 1894 to a very poor family. Bessie’s father passed away while she was a child and her mother died when she was ten. Raised by an older sister, Bessie often raised money for the family by singing on street corners while her brother accompanied her on guitar. Things changed drastically in 1912 when she got a job with the Moses Stokes troupe as a dancer, a traveling show that featured Ma Rainey as its singer. Smith learned about show business from Rainey and within a short time she was singing herself. After gaining a decade of experience performing in shows and various companies throughout the South, Bessie Smith was a major attraction, one whose renditions of blues were often considered hypnotic.
On 16 February 1923, Bessie Smith made her recording debut. Her version of Alberta Hunter’s “Down Hearted Blues” was a big hit and resulted in her recording prolifically for the Columbia label throughout the 1920s. Although the blues craze began to fade during 1924-25, Smith’s career gained in fame and prosperity. During the period covered by this set (1925-27), ‘The Empress of the Blues’ headed her own Harlem Frolics show, was making as much as $2,000 a week (a huge sum in 1925) and was at the height of her popularity.
Thirty-one at the time that she recorded I Ain’t Got Nobody, Bessie Smith shows on this performance how she infused pop tunes with the feeling of the blues. In her earliest recordings she was able to overcome the primitive recording quality. By 1925 records sounded more lifelike and, although altoist Bob Fuller’s playing is not too inspiring, Smith’s powerful singing easily overshadows that obstacle. He’s Gone Blues teams the singer (who really wails on the long notes) with her regular accompanist of the period, pianist Fred Longshaw. This is one of eight songs on this collection on which Smith wrote the lyrics. Nobody’s Blues But Mine has a return appearance by Fuller, whose alto playing seems to be trying to emulate Sidney Bechet but with little success. No matter, Smith sounds quite passionate on this blues ballad.
Clarence Williams, a very prolific organizer of record dates who was also a busy songwriter and publisher in the 1920s, was the pianist on Smith’s first record dates. He accompanies the singer on a pair of his songs: New Gulf Coast Blues and Florida Bound. Although he was not a virtuoso, Williams always played very well with Smith, letting her take the lead while he filled in the spaces with colorful breaks.
Cornetist Joe Smith and trombonist Charlie Green, both members of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, were two of Smith’s favorite accompanists. They inspired her without competing with her singing, uplifting each performance. At The Christmas Ball, Smith’s only Christmas-related recording, is one of her happier performances. I’ve Been Mistreated And I Don’t Like It is more optimistic than the title suggests, with Bessie planning on dumping her no-account man as soon as possible. Although both Red Mountain Blues and Golden Rule Blues are obscure, Smith’s intense singing makes them memorable, assisted by Fletcher Henderson (whose piano playing is heard here at its best) and Don Redman, who takes a tune apiece on clarinet and alto.
Squeeze Me was Fats Waller’s first composition, written with Clarence Williams in 1918. Williams is on piano behind Bessie, who gives the song a treatment that would not be equaled until Mildred Bailey adopted it as one of her trademark songs in the 1930s.
The next four tunes team Bessie with Joe Smith and Fletcher Henderson. Smith’s mellow tone was perfectly supportive of the singer in a way similar to Lester Young behind Billie Holiday in the late 1930s. While Louis Armstrong’s earlier dates with Bessie featured two giants battling it out, Joe Smith sounds quite happy being in the supporting cast where his beautiful sound blends in very well with her voice. His twelve breaks on Hard Driving Papa, each of which start with the same high note, are spectacular. Money Blues, Baby Doll, Hard Driving Papa and Lost Your Head Blues were not destined to become standards but by this point in time it almost did not matter what song Bessie Smith interpreted; she turned every piece into at least a near-classic. As it is, these four tunes are all excellent and well worth reviving. Although the cornetist is missed on Hard Time Blues, which just has Bessie backed by Henderson, her philosophical lyrics and general feistiness make this a haunting song. Joe Smith and clarinetist Buster Bailey help out on Young Woman’s Blues which has lyrics that are a little autobiographical in a general way.
The matchup of Bessie Smith with James P. Johnson resulted in musical magic although it was unexpected. A sophisticated musician who largely founded stride piano and set the standard for pianists of the 1920s, Johnson was not really thought of as a blues pianist. However he was a very sympathetic and inspired accompanist who recorded fourteen selections (a dozen as the only support) with the Empress; four in 1927, eight in 1929 and two with a vocal group the following year. Back-Water Blues (which has memorable lyrics about a flood) is a classic and Preachin’ The Blues is nearly on the same level.
Bessie Smith had both great accomplish-ments and struggles to experience during the remaining decade of her life before she died on 26 September 1937. As the premiere singer of the 1920s and as a blues vocalist, the Empress Of The Blues still reigns supreme.
– author of 7 jazz books including Classic Jazz (which covers the 1920s), Swing, Bebop and Trumpet Kings
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