SMITH, Bessie: Downhearted Blues

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BESSIE SMITH ‘Downhearted Blues’

Original Recordings 1923-1924

"She made life amusing, serious, witty and devastatingly depressing and she sang, without compromise, for people who were honest enough to realise that life is like that." (Spike Hughes — Melody Maker obituary, 1937)

"Bessie’s control of her voice was without parallel; a subtle accent on one syllable could change the entire meaning of a line. Her sense of pitch was as dramatic as it was accurate." (George Avakian)

To her friends and fans Bessie became known as ‘The Queen of the Blues’ and the record companies elevated her another notch to ‘Empress’. She made the blues her speciality and under that heading she sang of love, oppression and defeat for a salary often in excess of $1500 per week and during the first year of her recording contract alone her sales exceeded two million. The archetypal raw, vaudeville blues singer, she was an American legend for some time before her untimely death and kept her place among black and white blues enthusiasts until changing fashions in popular music finally put her out of vogue. Her recorded legacy, however, continues to fascinate not solely on account of Bessie’s magisterial vocalising but also because of accompaniments featuring such stellar luminaries of early jazz as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Tommy Ladnier and Clarence Williams.

Bessie first saw the light in Chattanooga, Tennessee on 15 April 1894, one of seven siblings born to William Smith, a part-time Baptist preacher and his wife Laura. Raised in "a little ramshackle cabin", her early years were marked by struggle and hardship and by the age of nine she had already lost both parents. Her family variously dispersed into vaudeville and travelling entertainment and Bessie, gifted with a voice, took her own first step towards showbiz, singing for nickels and dimes on Chattanooga street-corners, accompanied on guitar by her brother Andrew. An ebullient natural, gifted with a strong voice and a commanding stage presence, before long Bessie had followed suit, touring with the Stokes troupe, initially as a dancer.

After other similar tours, in 1912 Bessie joined F. S. Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Mintrels, at the instigation of her "fairy godmother" Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey (1886-1939). The Columbus, Georgia-born cabaret and pioneering female blues singer who later won fame throughout the South and Midwest variously billed ‘The first Race Artist to earn the title of Madame’ and ‘Mother of the Blues’ (tags bestowed largely in recognition of her recordings — she herself made about 100) took the virtual orphan Bessie under her wing and honed her raw talent, although from most accounts it is likely their relationship was fiery and that they parted on less than friendly terms.

After leaving the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, Bessie toured for a while around gin-mills and tent-shows (with Charles W. Bailey, Pete Werley’s Florida Blossoms, Silas Green et al). She appeared at Charles Bailey’s ‘81’ Theatre in Atlanta, from 1913 and with Hazel Green, at the Douglas Gilmor Theatre, Baltimore, in 1918. By the early 1920s she was an established star attraction on the TOBA (Theatre Owners’ Booking Association) circuit. By 1922, having steadily built up great followings in the South and on the East coast, she had established herself in Philadelphia. She is reputed to have made her very first records early in 1921, in New York, for the Emerson label, but although they were advertised in the classified columns of the Chicago Defender as scheduled for release on 10 March, no trace of these has so far been found. Other contemporary ads hint that she may have first auditioned for Columbia around this time and legend also has it that she was hired by Harry Pace to record various sides for his Black Swan label but fired on the spot after exclaiming "Hold on a minute while I spit" in the middle of a take!

From early in 1920 OKeh had been recording blues singer Mamie Smith with considerable commercial success and, late in 1922 or early in 1923, with a small backing group which included Sidney Bechet and pianist Clarence Williams (1893-1965) Bessie (who was then in a show with Bechet at the Dunbar Theatre in Philadelphia) was invited by Fred Hager of OKeh Records to make a test of A. J. Piron’s "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate". OKeh rejected this, however, considering her voice "too rough", her style too unorthodox and therefore without sales potential (Williams gave the test to Bessie, who presumably destroyed it). In February 1923, however, through the combined efforts of Williams and Columbia’s A&R man Frank Walker, who was by now keen to inaugurate a more competitive ‘Race Series’, she recorded the first of 180 known sides (twenty of which unpublished, masters now lost) under an exclusive contract which extended until November 1931. Although dropped at that time by Columbia during the Depression, ongoing sales of her records, it is claimed, helped save the company from bankruptcy (executive John Hammond, who rated Bessie "the greatest artist American jazz ever produced" would add one final session, recorded for the English market, in November 1933).

Bessie’s first Columbia sessions involved multiple re-takes. All done by the long-winded and unnerving acoustical process, few of these were passed for release. Perhaps it was nerves and she found it necessary to acclimatise to an impersonal acoustic horn now taking the place of the more customary audience vibes but Columbia, keen to market her potential, were accommodating and these earliest sessions, which until that of 26 April 1923 were all accompanied at the piano by Williams (they were soon to part painfully after Bessie discovered he was pocketing 50% of her $125 per-side-used fee!), would produce some of the most monumental blues sides in jazz history, beginning with the highly influential Downhearted Blues. Over and above Columbia’s expectations, Bessie’s recording of this song (co-written by Alberta Hunter, who had already recorded it for Paramount, in July 1922) became a 1923 equivalent of a US No.1. The recording sold an impressive 780,000 copies in under six months and made Bessie a household name. It was coupled with Gulf Coast Blues, one of various items penned for her by Clarence Williams, who probably earned more than she did in royalties. Between 30 April and 22 June, however, benefiting from some more sensitive accompaniments by Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952), she recorded a further seven published sides, a total which exceeded the number required by her contract. Both Bessie Smith and the Cuthbert, Georgia-born pianist-arranger and future bigband-leader were now poised for stardom.

Peter Dempsey, 2003

The Naxos Historical labels aim to make available the greatest recordings of the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.

David Lennick

As a producer of CD reissues, David Lennick’s work in this field grew directly from his own needs as a broadcaster specializing in vintage material and the need to make it listenable while being transmitted through equalizers, compressors and the inherent limitations of A.M. radio. Equally at home in classical, pop, jazz and nostalgia, Lennick describes himself as ex
Disc: 1
Hateful Blues
1 Downhearted Blues
2 Gulf Coast Blues
3 'Taint Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do
4 Keeps On A-Rainin'
5 Yodling Blues
6 Bleeding Hearted Blues
7 Lady Luck Blues
8 If You Don't I Know Who Will
9 Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mi
10 Jail House Blues
11 Graveyard Dream Blues
12 Cemetery Blues
13 Any Woman's Blues
14 Mistreatin' Daddy
15 Easy Come, Easy Go Blues
16 Moonshine Blues
17 Boweavil Blues
18 Hateful Blues
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