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Classic Blues 1 – Bessie Smith


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Adam has a great love of music. He is especially fond of jazz and blues.

When he was much younger one of his first major jazz record purchases was of the CBS re-issues of the entire Bessie Smith recordings under the title ‘Empress of the Blues’. Many years later he purchased the set again on CD.

Library of Congress Carl van Vechten

Library of Congress Carl van Vechten

The Redhotjazz site says of Bessie Smith, in part,

Bessie Smith was a rough, crude, violent woman. She was also the greatest of the classic Blues singers of the 1920s. Bessie started out as a street musician in Chattanooga. In 1912 Bessie joined a traveling show as a dancer and singer. The show featured Pa and Ma Rainey, and Smith developed a friendship with Ma. Ma Rainey was Bessie’s mentor and she stayed with her show until 1915. Bessie then joined the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit and gradually built up her own following in the south and along the eastern seaboard. By the early 1920s she was one of the most popular Blues singers in vaudeville. In 1923 she made her recording debut on Columbia, accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams. They recorded “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues.” The record sold more than 750,000 copies that same year, rivaling the success of Blues singer Mamie Smith (no relation). Throughout the 1920s Smith recorded with many of the great Jazz musicians of that era, including Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman and Louis Armstrong. Her rendition of “St. Louis Blues” with Armstrong is considered by most critics to be one of finest recordings of the 1920s.

A gifted singer who left behind a marvellous canon of song.

In passing it is worth noting that it was not until 1970 that her grave in Pennsylvania had a headstone paid for in part by Janis Joplin. This act of remembrance was itself commemorated in a song by that most interesting of female singers Dory Previn, who wrote amongst other things Mythical Kings & Iguanas.

Ma Rainey is said by some to have been Bessie Smith’s mentor. Rainey was herself an excellent singer. Interestingly enough there was a hit play by August Wilson on Broadway in the 1980s called Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom centred on a recording of a record album. Adam went to that play in New York, it was fantastic. It has since been revived more than once.

These people were real and their songs reflect that, their lives and times.

The clip is an excellent one, although Bessie Smith was probably not in the best state by the time it was made.

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