SMITH, Bessie: I've Got What It Takes

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Bessie Smith, Vol. 5

'I've Got What It Takes' Original Recordings 1929-1933

Bessie Smith was still very much in her prime in 1929, the point where this collection begins. She was still just 35 but, considering how famous she was and how powerful she still sang, it is surprising how little time she had left.

The Empress Of The Blues had been at the top of the black music world for nearly fifteen years. Born on 15 April 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she became an orphan by the time she was ten. To fight poverty, she sang on street corners, accompanied by her brother on guitar.

Things began to look up in 1912 when Bessie started working as a dancer with the Moses Stokes troupe, a revue whose star was Ma Rainey, the first famous blues singer. Learning from Rainey's example on how to sell a song to an audience, within a couple of years Bessie was a major attraction in the South. Her singing was remarkably passionate and sensuous, practically hypnotizing audiences. By 1919 she was headlining her own travelling shows in the South.

After Mamie Smith had a major success in late-1920 with her recording of "Crazy Blues", nearly every black female singer possessing some talent was rushed into the recording studios in hopes of duplicating her success. It is surprising that it took until February 1923 before Bessie Smith was finally recorded, but she made up for lost time. Her first recording, Alberta Hunter's "Down Hearted Blues", was a big seller and she recorded regularly for the rest of the decade.

The blues craze had largely faded by 1926, but Smith was such a passionate and popular singer that she outlasted most of her competitors. However by 1929 she knew full well that the blues were considered passé, particularly by record company executives. She sought to alter her repertoire while still remaining based in the blues.

For the recording date of 8 May 1929, Bessie Smith was joined by the premier stride pianist (James P. Johnson) and the top guitarist in jazz (Eddie Lang). The three songs that she recorded are all single-entendre songs whose lyrics make no effort to disguise the subject matter. Hokum, fuelled by the success of "It's Tight Like That", was becoming popular and, while these three songs are less subtle, the style is similar. I'm Wild About That Thing has some forceful singing from Bessie along with light-hearted playing from her two accompanists. Kitchen Man, a song revived by Alberta Hunter in the 1970s, is the most inventive and humorous of the three, featuring some outrageous lyrics. You've Got To Give Me Some has essentially the same melody and theme as I'm Wild About That Thing; both were written by Spencer Williams.

A week later, the Empress recorded a pair of classics. I've Got What It Takes is a subtle nod towards the virtues of both self-reliance and prostitution. Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out, which in time became Bessie's greatest hit, is a perfect Depression era song but surprisingly it was recorded six months before the Depression when times were still good. Bessie Smith, whose career was only just beginning to slow down, seems to be predicting both her future and that of the United States.

James P. Johnson, the perfect accompanist for Bessie, is in typically swinging form behind her vocals on It Makes My Love Come Down and Wasted Life Blues, a pair of songs written by the Empress herself. While It Makes My Love Come Down is similar to I'm Wild About That Thing musically while being a bit more subtle, Wasted Life Blues is bluish without being a blues, a little self-pitying without being hopeless. Not strictly autobiographical, it does hint at Bessie's future.

Although Wall Street had crashed a few months earlier and it was now 1930, Bessie's rendition of New Orleans Hop Scop Blues is in the style of the mid-1920s. Charlie Green (her favourite trombonist), former Ellington trumpeter Louis Metcalfe, Garvin Bushell on reeds and pianist Clarence Williams were all veteran associates of Bessie's and she excels in this setting, celebrating a now-forgotten dance. Williams and Green return for the next two songs. See If I'll Care has a simple but effective message while Baby Have Pity On Me is a jazz/pop tune of the sort that Ethel Waters was having great success with.

Clearly Bessie Smith was trying to get away from the stereotype of being a blues singer, and with good reason. Ma Rainey made her last records in 1928 and most of the other classic blues singers, being inflexible, stopped recording after the first years of the Depression. Only Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter (who became a cabaret singer in Europe during the 1930s) were able to make the crossover from blues towards pop.

In contrast to her freewheeling lifestyle and such songs as I'm Wild About That Thing, on 9 June 1930 Bessie Smith recorded a pair of pseudo-spiritual pop tunes. With exuberant playing from James P. Johnson and backup by the Bessemer Singers, she is roaring and quite expressive on often-overlooked versions of On Revival Day and Moan, You Moaners. Thirty years before Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, the Empress displayed the similarities between singing blues and gospel music.

With assistance from cornetist Ed Allen and the forgotten but effective pianist Steve Stevens, Bessie's versions of Hustlin' Dan and Black Mountain Blues look back stylistically to her glory days. But the times were now different and the Empress was not in such great demand anymore. From eighteen recordings in 1928, her output shrunk to fourteen songs in 1929, eight in 1930 and just six in 1931.

On Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl and Safety Mama, Bessie Smith is accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams, her lone accompanist during her debut session on 16 February 1923, less than nine years earlier. There was nothing wrong with Smith's voice and she had not declined in the slightest, but the Depression was wrecking the record industry and many jazz and blues artists, particularly black ones, were being dropped by their labels. Even the Empress Of The Blues was not an exception and this looked like it could be her last chapter.

Although no longer a headliner, Bessie Smith still worked fairly steadily in the 1930s. The young record producer John Hammond was a fan and in 1933 he arranged for what would be her final recordings, four non-blues with the most 'modern' band that Bessie ever had. While clarinettist Benny Goodman, the future King of Swing, is only on Gimme A Pigfoot (the most famous and outrageous of the four numbers), such notables as trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frank Newton and tenor-saxophonist Chu Berry all excelled in their lone opportunity to record with the Empress. They give her a small-group swing feel on Do Your Duty (where they sound like a Teddy Wilson-led all-star band), I'm Down In The Dumps, Take Me For A Buggy Ride and the exuberant Gimme A Pigfoot.

This final record date hints at the music that Bessie Smith was performing live during her last
Disc: 1
Gimme a Pigfoot
1 I'm Wild About That Thing
2 Kitchen Man
3 You've Got To Given Me Some
4 I've Got What It Takes
5 Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out
6 It Makes My Love Come Down
7 Wasted Life Blues
8 New Orleans Hop Scop Blues
9 See if I'll Care
10 Baby Have Pity on Me
11 On Revival Day (A Rhythmic Spiritual)
12 Moan, You Moaners
13 Hustlin' Dan
14 Black Mountain Blues
15 Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl
16 Safety Mama
17 Do Your Duty
18 I'm Down in the Dumps
19 Take Me for a Buggy Ride
20 Gimme a Pigfoot
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