SMITH, Bessie: Preachin' the Blues

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'Preachin' The Blues' Original Recordings 1925-1927

When Mamie Smith recorded \Crazy Blues" in 1920, it changedthe music industry.  The completelyunexpected success of her recording, the first time that a black singer hadrecorded the blues, showed the labels that there was a major untapped marketfor record sales among African-Americans. In hopes of duplicating the sales of "Crazy Blues," record companies whohad previously neglected the black market rushed to record every black femalevocalist who could sing a blues, whether their background was in Southerntheatres or Northern vaudeville. While many vocalists were only documented during 1921-23 on two or fourtitles 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 wasBessie Smith.

She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on 15 April 1894 to avery poor family.  Bessie's fatherpassed away while she was a child and her mother died when she was ten.  Raised by an older sister, Bessie oftenraised money for the family by singing on street corners while her brotheraccompanied her on guitar.  Thingschanged drastically in 1912 when she got a job with the Moses Stokes troupe asa dancer, a traveling show that featured Ma Rainey as its singer.  Smith learned about show business fromRainey and within a short time she was singing herself.  After gaining a decade of experienceperforming in shows and various companies throughout the South, Bessie Smithwas a major attraction, one whose renditions of blues were often consideredhypnotic.

On 16 February 1923, Bessie Smith made her recordingdebut.  Her version of AlbertaHunter's "Down Hearted Blues" was a big hit and resulted in her recordingprolifically for the Columbia label throughout the 1920s.  Although the blues craze began to fadeduring 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, wasmaking as much as $2,000 a week (a huge sum in 1925) and was at the height ofher 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 thefeeling of the blues.  In herearliest recordings she was able to overcome the primitive recordingquality.  By 1925 records soundedmore 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 reallywails on the long notes) with her regular accompanist of the period, pianistFred Longshaw.  This is one ofeight songs on this collection on which Smith wrote the lyrics.  Nobody's Blues But Mine has a returnappearance by Fuller, whose alto playing seems to be trying to emulate SidneyBechet but with little success.  Nomatter, Smith sounds quite passionate on this blues ballad.

Clarence Williams, a very prolific organizer of record dateswho was also a busy songwriter and publisher in the 1920s, was the pianist onSmith's first record dates.  Heaccompanies the singer on a pair of his songs: New Gulf Coast Blues and FloridaBound.  Although he was not a virtuoso,Williams always played very well with Smith, letting her take the lead while hefilled in the spaces with colorful breaks.   

Cornetist Joe Smith and trombonist Charlie Green, bothmembers of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, were two of Smith's favoriteaccompanists.  They inspired herwithout competing with her singing, uplifting each performance.  At The Christmas Ball, Smith's onlyChristmas-related recording, is one of her happier performances.  I've Been Mistreated And I Don't LikeIt is more optimistic than the title suggests, with Bessie planning on dumpingher 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 atune apiece on clarinet and alto.

Squeeze Me was Fats Waller's first composition, written withClarence Williams in 1918. Williams is on piano behind Bessie, who gives the song a treatment thatwould not be equaled until Mildred Bailey adopted it as one of her trademarksongs in the 1930s.

The next four tunes team Bessie with Joe Smith and FletcherHenderson.  Smith's mellow tone wasperfectly supportive of the singer in a way similar to Lester Young behindBillie Holiday in the late 1930s. While Louis Armstrong's earlier dates with Bessie featured two giantsbattling it out, Joe Smith sounds quite happy being in the supporting castwhere 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 DrivingPapa and Lost Your Head Blues were not destined to become standards but by thispoint in time it almost did not matter what song Bessie Smith interpreted; sheturned every piece into at least a near-classic.  As it is, these four tunes are all excellent and well worthreviving.  Although the cornetistis missed on Hard Time Blues, which just has Bessie backed by Henderson, herphilosophical lyrics and general feistiness make this a haunting song.  Joe Smith and clarinetist Buster Baileyhelp out on Young Woman's Blues which has lyrics that are a littleautobiographical in a general way.

The matchup of Bessie Smith with James P. Johnson resultedin musical magic although it was unexpected.  A sophisticated musician who largely founded stride pianoand set the standard for pianists of the 1920s, Johnson was not really thoughtof as a blues pianist.  However hewas a very sympathetic and inspired accompanist who recorded fourteenselections (a dozen as the only support) with the Empress; four in 1927, eightin 1929 and two with a vocal group the following year.  Back-Water Blues (which has memorablelyrics about a flood) is a classic and Preachin' The Blues is nearly on thesame level.

Bessie Smith had both great accomplish-ments and strugglesto experience during the remaining decade of her life before she died on 26September 1937.  As the premieresinger of the 1920s and as a blues vocalist, the Empress Of The Blues stillreigns supreme.

Scott Yanow

- author of 7 jazz books including Classic Jazz (whichcovers the 1920s), Swing, Bebop and Trumpet Kings

Disc: 1
Preachin' the Blues
1 I Ain't Got Nobody
2 He's Gone Blues
3 Nobody's Blues But Mine
4 New Gulf Coast Blues
5 Florida Bound
6 At the Christmas Ball
7 I've Been Mistreated and I Don't Like It
8 Red Mountain Blues
9 Golden Rule Blues
10 Squeeze Me
11 Money Blues
12 Baby Doll
13 Hard Driving Papa
14 Lost Your Head Blues
15 Hard Time Blues
16 Young Woman's Blues
17 Back-Water Blues
18 Preachin' the Blues
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