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Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith : Empress Of The Blues

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Bessie Smith,
"Gulf Coast Blues"

Bessie Smith at a glance...

Hometown: Chattanooga, TN
First Recordings: 1923

Notable Sidemen:
Clarence Williams -piano
Fletcher Henderson -piano
Joe Smith -cornet
Charlie Green -trombone
Louis Armstrong -cornet
Elmer Snowden -banjo
Frankie Newton -trumpet
Benny Goodman -clarinet
Jack Teagarden -trombone

Ma Rainey was Bessie Smith's mentor, and Smith toured the South with Rainey for much of the 1910s. With mostly high-caliber jazz musicians behind her, she blossomed into a star in her own right by 1920. Sidemen such as Charlie Green, Joe Smith, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Don Redman all were "borrowed" from Fletcher Henderson's big band. Some claim that "Down Hearted Blues" saved Columbia Records from extinction in 1923. Her death in 1937 has been the subject of controversy: Many say she bled to death because she couldn't be admitted to a nearby white hospital. She was the leading lady of the blues' classic early period.

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Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
Empress Of The Blues
Charly Records, Recorded 1923-1933
Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith

Boasting a combination of from-the-belly power, touching vulnerability, and assured grace, Bessie Smith weighs in as one of the blues' most proficient interpreters. "Got the world in a jug / the stopper's in my hand," she sang on her first recording, "Down Hearted Blues," and this perfectly summed up the feisty, in-your-face attitude that contributed greatly to the power of her work.

This compilation provides a useful career overview - Columbia has issued five double-CD compilations for those who wish to delve deeper. It begins with three of her earliest recordings from 1923, with only Clarence Williams' piano in support. By 1924, her style had matured significantly, singing with added conviction and a hint of roughness. "House Rent Blues" features Fletcher Henderson's deft piano work and Charlie Green's moaning and plunged trombone while "Weeping Willow Blues" adds Joe Smith's clear and happy cornet to contrast Green's muted tones.

In 1925, Smith benefits from the presence of a young Louis Armstrong. The four tunes with Armstrong are all examples of her finest work. The chilling "St. Louis Blues" crawls along while Satchmo's wailing cornet clearly inspires her. Armstrong playfully whines through "Reckless Blues," but it's "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle" that remains a defining statement, with Smith at her absolute grittiest.

The compilation inexplicably skips from August 1925 to March 1928, ignoring her work with notables such as Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, and James P. Johnson, but it returns in time for the six-minute "Empty Bed Blues," a racy and ribald tour de force. The collection ends with 1933's "Gimme a Pig Foot," noteworthy for the presence of Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, and Frankie Newton, though only Newton's trumpet solo makes an impact. Smith, four years away from her death, growls, "Gimme a reefer / and a gang of gin."

If you like Bessie Smith, check out:
Ma Rainey Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Bessie Smith Mama's Got The Blues
Bessie Smith

-- Marc Greilsamer

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