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SMITH, Bessie: St. Louis Blues

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'St Louis Blues' Original Recordings 1924-1925

At the time that Bessie Smith recorded the opening selectionon this release, Haunted House Blues, she was three months shy of turningthirty and entering the period of her greatest popularity.  Smith was headlining in her own shownot only in the South but in such Northern cities as Chicago, Cleveland andDetroit.  She appeared often on theradio and, most important for today's listeners, was recording frequently andearning her title of \The Empress Of The Blues".

Born 15 April 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smithnever knew her father (who died while she was very young) and her mother passedaway when she was ten.  Raised byan older sister and growing up poor, she first performed at an amateur contestwhen she was ten, often raising money for the family by singing in the streetswith her brother backing her on guitar. In 1912 when Smith was eighteen, she joined the Moses Stokes troupe as adancer.  The company's vocalist wasMa Rainey, who is considered the first female blues singer and was aninspiration.  Within a year or two,Smith was singing at Atlanta's "81" Theatre and quickly becoming a popularattraction.  She worked regularlyon the road with a variety of companies and gained a strong reputationthroughout the South for her powerful voice and highly expressive way ofsinging the blues.  By 1920 she washeading her own show.

The blues craze began in 1920 when Mamie Smith had a majorbestseller in "Crazy Blues". Suddenly the record labels, which had previously excluded black artistsfrom the recording studios, went out of their way to document scores of femaleblues singers in hopes of duplicating Mamie Smith's success.  Among the many discoveries were EthelWaters, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox and Ma Rainey, but none made a greater impact thanBessie Smith.

After auditioning unsuccessfully for the Edison label andrecording two selections for Columbia on 15 February 1923 that for unknownreasons were rejected, Bessie Smith made her recording debut the followingday.  Her very first recording,Alberta Hunter's "Downhearted Blues", became a major hit and within a year shewas the most famous and popular of the classic blues singers.  That seemed only fitting because shehad the strongest and most memorable voice.  While many other singers on early recordings were defeatedby the inferior technical quality of both the recording equipment and theiraccompanists, the Empress simply overrode both.  Few other singers from 1923 are listenable today but Smith,whether introducing "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" or putting a great dealof passion into "Jailhouse Blues" and "Mistreatin' Daddy"  (all to be found on Bessie Smith Vol.1:"Downhearted Blues", Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120660), was way ahead of her contemporaries.  In fact, she can be considered not onlythe finest blues singer of the 1920s but the first female jazz singer.

During the period covered by Naxos' second Bessie Smithreissue (9 January 1924 to 27 May 1925), the singer recorded 38selections.  The eighteen best areon this set and most of the selections have the singer accompanied by playerstaken from the leading jazz big band of the time, the Fletcher HendersonOrchestra.  Haunted House Blues,which has Smith dealing with both haunting spirits and sound effects, andEavesdropper's Blues (discussing the perils of eavesdropping) team the Empresswith pianist Henderson and clarinetist Don Redman (Henderson's brilliantarranger).  Haunted House Blues isparticularly unusual for having a one-bar extension in the middle of eachchorus, making it a very rare 13 (rather than 12) bar blues.

Violinist Robert Robbins' playing would distract most othersingers but not Smith, who on Frankie Blues is heard at her most powerful.  Rainy Weather Blues and Salt WalterBlues have Bessie interacting with the great trombonist Charlie Green.  One of the first jazz players to swingconsistently on record, Green's tonal distortions and witty ideas alwaysinspired Smith.  Weeping WillowBlues adds cornettist Joe Smith to the group and he immediately became a greatfavorite of Bessie, who loved his mellow tone and the way that he complementedher.  Sinful Blues has Bessiejoined by her new accompanist, pianist Fred Longshaw, a better player thanFletcher Henderson and a regular in her live performances.  A particularly unique aspect to thisperformance is that Smith takes her only kazoo solo on records, ending the songquite effectively.

On 14 January 1925, Bessie Smith recorded the first of hersessions with Louis Armstrong.  Shemay have preferred Joe Smith, but there was no better musical partner for her(at least among horn players) than the 23-year old Armstrong, who answers herstatements with note-bending ideas that are both supportive andcompetitive.  On a dramatic versionof St Louis Blues (one of the finest ever recorded) and Reckless Blues,Longshaw switches to a reed organ which gives a church feel to the music.  Sobbin' Hearted Blues, Cold In HandBlues and You've Been A Good Old Wagon (But You Dun Broke Down), with Longshawback on piano, continues the musical magic between the singer and thecornetist.

Smith is joined by seven musicians from the Henderson bandon 5 May, including the first major tenor-saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and thefluent clarinetist Buster Bailey along with Joe Smith, Charlie Green and theHenderson rhythm section (sans drums). Although most famous for her blues singing, Smith was quite capable ofswinging popular songs, as she shows on the spirited Cake Walkin' Babies FromHome.  At the same session shewaxed the definitive version of W. C. Handy's Yellow Dog Blues.

The final four selections on this collection all have Smithassisted by Charlie Green (who is showcased on Soft Pedal Dance) and FletcherHenderson.  Buster Bailey helps outon Dixie Flyer Blues (one of the earlier train songs) but it is the tworeunions with Louis Armstrong (Careless Love Blues and I Ain't Gonna Play NoSecond Fiddle) that are the obvious classics.

In 1925, Bessie Smith had great success with her show inChicago, she toured in the South, North and Midwest, and she made as much as$2,000 a week, a tremendous amount of money at the time, especially for a blackperformer.  She was at the heightof her powers, both artistically and commercially.  And although there would be some hard times later in life,Bessie Smith would remain the unchallenged Empress of the Blues up until thetime of her death on 26 September 1937. No one ever sang the blues with her power and passion.

Scott Yanow

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

Disc: 1
I Ain't Got to Play No Second Fiddle
1 Haunted House Blues
2 Eavesdropper's Blues
3 Frankie Blues
4 Rainy Weather Blues
5 Salt Water Blues
6 Weeping Willow blues
7 Sinful Blues
8 The St. Louis Blues
9 Reckless Blues
10 Sobbin' Hearted Blues
11 Cold in Hand Blues
12 You've Been a Good Old Wagon
13 Cake Walkin' Babies (from Home)
14 Yellow Dog Blues
15 Soft Pedal Blues
16 Careless Love Blues
17 Dixie Flying Blues
18 I Ain't Got to Play No Second Fiddle
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