Monday, February 04, 2008

Bessie Smith - The Complete Columbia Recordings Vol.1

by Chris Albertson

      People whose job it is to turn a performer's name into a household word are—by the very nature of their task —given to exaggeration. They tend to wrap their clients in superlatives that have long been rendered meaningless by overuse, and, more often than not, the puffery is just that. There are of course always exceptions, and Bessie Smith is a case in point. Naming her "Queen of the Blues" was obviously a promotional ploy, but later when the pro­motional buildup escalated and she became "Empress," no one objected. Both appellations happen to have been eminently fitting, and even true royalty concurred. 'The Prince of Wales was showing us around," singer-dancer Mae Barnes once told me, recalling an early thirties visit to Windsor Castle, "and we came to a huge portrait of Queen Mary. 'What a regal woman,' I said. He nodded and said 'Yes, I believe there are only two truly regal women in this world, my mother and Bessie Smith.'"
      "Bessie was a queen," said Ruby Walker, her niece by marriage. "I mean, the people looked up to her and wor­shipped her like she was a queen. You know, she would walk into a room or out on a stage and people couldn't help but notice her—she was that kind of woman, a strong, beautiful woman with a personality as big as a house. No hanging around in the corner, not Bessie! She'd let you know she was there, and she didn't have to open her mouth to do it."
      Of course, Bessie took her commanding presence with her to the grave, but her artistry—captured on one 17-minute film and 160 3-minute recordings—has made her immortal. For decades, Bessie also lived on in the memories of those who knew her and heard her perform, but they are a dwindling number as this century draws to a close. "I don't ever remember any artist in my long, long years who could evoke the response from her listeners that Bessie Smith did,' said the late Frank Schiffman, who owned Harlem's Lafayette and Apollo theatres when Bessie was a headliner there. "Whatever pathos there is in the world, whatever sadness she had, was brought out in her singing—and the audience knew it and responded to it." Band leader Sy Oliver remembered seeing Bessie "hypnotize" and "walk" a member of the audience during a Baltimore engagement: "That man was completely mesmerized by Bessie's singing, and as she slowly walked backwards, looking straight at him, he followed." Drum­mer Zutty Singleton, who played for Bessie in New Orleans, likened her performances to sermons. "She could do that kind of thing," he said, "because her songs were like church hymns—they kinda grabbed you tight." New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker concurred: "If you had any church background, like people who came from the South, as I did, you would recognize a similarity be­tween what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people. She could bring about mass hypnotism."
      Bessie's absorbing style also profoundly influenced other singers—not only the blues ladies of her day but, indeed, generations of vocalists that followed, from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin. She was in her day what Aretha Franklin is in ours: that one singer whose combination of musical skill, artistic honesty and good taste separates her from all others. It is no wonder that Aretha, the undis­puted Queen of Soul, sees a great deal of herself in the Empress of the Blues. When Bessie began recording, there were no microphones, just an ominous, cone-shaped horn; it did not capture every nuance of a perform­ance, but there was a raw honesty about what it did preserve, and it never flattered. Today's advanced, elec­tronic recording equipment can not only enhance a sing­er's voice, it can be downright deceitful and create the appearance of talent where none exists. But not even the most sophisticated recording equipment can fake that special something which gives performances by Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson—and a handful of other singers, like Carlos Gardel and Edith Piaf—their enduring quality. Hype may have given Bessie her "title," but it is her true artistry—captured primitively, by today's standards—that lets her continue to leave her mark on soul divas and cabaret crooners as we approach a new century.
      Bessie rose to become the highest-paid black entertainer of her day with earnings totaling $2,000 a week. That is a mere pittance by today's standards, but it was considered a small fortune in the twenties, especially in the netherworld black show business, which Bessie em­braced. And, although she had to pay the show's salaries and expenses out of that money, the amount she could claim as personal profit was a staggering one for a woman who grew up in abject poverty.
      Bessie was born on April 15, probably in 1894, the daughter of William and Laura Smith. Her father was a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher who died before Bessie was old enough to remember him, and before she was ten, she had also lost mother and a brother. To Viola, the oldest sister—whom a stranger in the night had left carrying a baby girl of her own—fell the burden of raising and caring for the remaining family. Their home was a one-room wooden shack on Charles Street in the Blue Goose Hollow section of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bessie would later describe it as a "ramshackle cabin" where rats outnumbered the Smith family. Bitter and old beyond her years, Viola worked hard, taking in laundry, which she boiled atop an outdoor coal stove, and when she wasn't washing, she was cooking. Clarence, the oldest male member of the family, did his best to help by taking what­ever odd jobs he could find, but he had the not uncommon urge to explore the world beyond Chattanooga. In 1904, when a small traveling troupe came to town and pre­sented Clarence with his first opportunity to leave home, he seized it. Always the clown, Clarence had long shown an interest in theatre, and his enthusiasm had rubbed off on Bessie, who was only nine when she entered the Ivory Theatre's weekly amateur contest. Seeing her favorite brother leave town as a master of ceremonies made her all the more determined to one day follow in his footsteps. "Bessie probably wouldn't have been in show business if it hadn't been for Clarence," Ruby Smith observed in a se­ries of 1971 interviews. "She and Clarence often laughed about how he inspired her to go out and dance on the sidewalks, and how Viola didn't like it. I guess she liked the money, though."
      Bessie was now attending the West Main Street School, but she often spent her late afternoons and weekends per­forming in the streets, accompanied on guitar by another brother, Andrew. They were most frequently seen around Ninth Street, a stretch along which the city's black night life centered, but sometimes they stayed in their own neighborhood, in front of the White Elephant Saloon on Thirteenth and Elm. The saloon's patrons were good to the Smith children, their generosity heightened by the establishment's offerings.
     Will Johnson, a friend of Andrew's, still remembered the duo in 1974. "She used to sing 'Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?,'" he said, "and whenever someone threw a fat coin her way, she'd say something like That's right, Charlie, give to the church.' I always thought she had more talent as a performer—you know, dancing and clowning—than as a singer, at least in those days I don't remember being particularly impressed with her voice. She sure knew how to shake money loose from a pocket, though."
      In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Moses Stokes company, to put on a few shows at a Ninth Street storefront theatre. He arranged to have the troupe's managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, give Bessie an audi­tion, which she passed. Thus it was that Bessie Smith launched her professional career as a dancer with the Moses Stokes troupe, and not—as some writers once had us believe—after being kidnapped and dumped, screaming and kicking, out of a burlap bag by henchmen of singer Ma Rainey. That colorful story is nothing more, but Gertrude "Ma" Rainey was on the scene when Bessie left Chattanooga, for she was the Stokes troupe's resident vocalist.
      About eight years older than Bessie, Ma Rainey, a portly woman with an oddly charming gold-toothed smile, was the first known female blues singer. "We [women] weren't singing blues in those days," recalled Ida Cox, one of the great classic blues singers, who in 1911 escaped from Cedartown, Georgia, with a show. "My first song that I sang in public was ‘Put Your Arms Around Me.'" Alberta Hunter, who performed in lowly Chicago dives at that time, recalled that her repertoire consisted of such popular material as "Where The River Shannon Flows" and "All Night Long," adding that these songs "were about as far removed from jazz as 'God Bless America.'" Ma Rainey, on the other hand, was singing blues; not in the vaudeville style that women would later adopt, but in the less pol­ished, earthier manner of male blues minstrels who then roamed the South's streets and back roads.
      It has been suggested that Ma Rainey was Bessie's men­tor, the person from whom she learned everything she knew, but Bessie's style contradicts that theory, as do the recollections of people who heard her sing in those formative years. "[Ma Rainey] may have taught her a few dance steps, or showed her how to walk onstage," said the late character actor Leigh Whipper, who first heard Bessie in 1913, when he managed Atlanta's "81" Theatre, "but Bessie was born with that voice and she had a style of her own when I first heard her in Atlanta. She was just a teen­ager, and she obviously didn't know she was the artist she was. She didn't know how to dress, she just sang in her street clothes, but she was such a natural that she could wreck anybody's show. She only made ten dollars a week, but people would throw money on the stage, and the stagehands would pick up about three or four dollars for her after every performance, especially when she sang the 'Weary Blues'—that was her big number."
      Ma Rainey probably helped to groom Bessie for life on the road, and she may have introduced her to the blues, but there is general agreement among those who experi­enced her performances that Bessie had her own style by 1913. Revered gospel composer and former Ma Rainey accompanist Thomas A. Dorsey sold soft drinks at Atlanta's "81" Theatre when Bessie first ventured out on her own. "It was about 1913 or 1914," he recalled some fifty years later, "and Bessie was already a star in her own right, but she really got her start there at the '81,' and I don't recall Ma Rainey ever having taken credit for helping her."
      The "81" Theatre served Bessie as a home base while she traveled with such popular troupes as Pete Werley's Florida Blossoms and the Silas Green show, often in as a chorine. She was in the chorus line of one of his shows when Irvin C. Miller—one of the following decade's most powerful black producers—first saw her. "She was a natu­ral singer, even then," he recalled in a 1970 interview, "but we stressed beauty in the chorus line, and Bessie did not meet my standards as far as looks were concerned. I told the manager to get rid of her, which he did." It was Bessie's dark complexion that disturbed Miller—it contradicted his motto: "Glorifying the Brownskin Girl."
      As her reputation grew on the southern circuit, Bessie began to move north. She was a veteran trouper by 1921, when she took up residence in Philadelphia. Around that time, a three-minute performance sent a very strong sig­nal to the burgeoning record industry: Mamie Smith's 1920 recording of "Crazy Blues." Ms. Smith was a black pop singer from Cincinnati who had a sweet, rather ordi­nary voice and a complexion Irvin C. Miller would have approved of. She had made two sides previously, but "Crazy Blues" was different: it was the first record by a black singer to register large sales, and it was a vocal blues tune. It all added up to a new market, so record companies, big and small, formed so-called "race record" divisions, and began scrambling to sign up blues-singing ladies. What they got, for the most part, were more pop singers like Mamie Smith, but now the accompani­ments became hot, and so—with musicians like Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, James P. Johnson, and Johnny Dodds supplying backgrounds—even the dreariest of singers made interesting records.
      Since no earlier recordings have ever turned up, there is every reason to believe that Bessie's February 16, 1923 Columbia session was her first, and one must wonder why someone didn't whisk her into a studio sooner; after all, "Crazy Blues" was two years old by then. Still, two puz­zling items from 1921 raise some questions as to whether or not Bessie made her recording debut that year: one is a Philadelphia Tribune advertisement for the week begin­ning May 16; it lists Bessie's name in big headliner letters, followed by "Hits on Columbia Records and her 5 Jazzoway Dandies." The other is a mysterious item buried in the entertainment pages of the Chicago Defender's February 12 issue:

"One of the greatest of all 'blues' singers is Miss Bessie Smith, who is at present making records, with the aid of six jazz musicians, for the Emerson record company. The first release will be made about Mar. 10. Bessie Smith is a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee."

      Collectors would pay a small fortune for any pre-1923 Bessie Smith sides, were they to turn up, but, at this point, no one expects to find such treasures.
      The Columbia recordings are quite a different matter, but just how Bessie came to the label is not known for certain—several people have taken credit for "discovering" her, and several stories of how that came about circu­lated for several decades. The most publicized version originated with Frank Walker, Bessie's producer, who in 1923 was appointed the head of Columbia's race records division. He said that he had heard Bessie perform in a small Selma, Alabama, dive around 1917, and that he sent for her. "I don't think there could have been more than fifty people up North who had heard about Bessie Smith when I sent Clarence Williams down South to get her," he said. "I told Clarence about the Smith girl and said, This is what you've got to do. Go down there and find her and bring her back up here.'" Two weeks earlier, Williams had, in fact, brought Bessie to an OKeh Records audition in New York, where she cut a test side, but after interrupt­ing a take with a "Hold it, I gotta spit!" she was turned down for being "too rough." The truth is that Frank Walker knew full well that Bessie lived in Philadelphia. "When Mr. Walker came into Columbia, he asked me to get that Bessie Smith I had been talking about," Williams told an interviewer. "I said that those others had said that her voice was too rough. 'You just get her here,' he told me, 'bring her back up here.'" Incidentally, Bessie had also au­ditioned for Thomas Edison, who simply entered a "NG" next to her name in the studio log.
      While living in Philadelphia and performing nightly at Horan's cabaret, Bessie met a semi-illiterate night watch­man named Jack Gee, whom she would later marry. From Gee came a story more plausible than any other. "Charlie Carson had a little record shop at 518 South Street," he recalled in 1971, "and he used to hang out at Horan's. He loved to hear Bessie sing and he used to tell her how she was better than Mamie, who was about the hottest thing going at the time. That's why he told Clarence [Williams] to take her to Mr. Walker. I think he was hot on her getting a recording deal because he knew she was better than all the rest of them girls." Indeed she was, and, out of all these stories there rises one indisputable fact: on February 15, 1923, Clarence Williams brought Bessie Smith to a Columbia studio where he accompanied her in a performance of two songs, neither of which were deemed to be of releasable quality. No masters survive, so we don't know whether these sides were rejected for artistic or technical reasons. Walker described her on that day: "She looked about 17, tall and fat and scared to death, just awful!" Others recall that Bessie was still fairly slim in 1923, and photographs bear this out. If she was "scared to death," she had clearly overcome her fright by the following day when she again faced the ominous recording horn and sang three songs, including the coupling that would com­prise her first release: "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Down Hearted Blues."
      The debut record was an overwhelming success, due largely to Bessie's gripping delivery of "Down Hearted Blues," a song with whose message many of her listeners could identify. Accompanied by Williams—whose playing seems restricted to the notes on the sheet music—she is in top form, delivering the story of woe with a masterly blend of pathos and defiance. "I don't believe anything that had to do with singing could make that woman nervous or scared," said Ruby Smith when she heard Walker's description of Bessie. "In fact, it took an awful lot, period, to make Bessie scared, and singing was one thing she knew no one could beat her at."
     Walker did not wait to see how well the first release would do. He signed Bessie to a one-year contract, calling for a minimum of 12 "usable" sides, and had her back in the studio for four sessions in April. Eight selections were recorded, including "Baby Won't You Please Come Home"—which is not a blues, but became a part of the traditional jazz repertoire—and the gloriously spunky "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do." Clarence Williams took composer credit for both these songs, but he was known to claim more tunes as his own than he actually wrote. ASCAP lists as co-composers Robert Graham Prince and Porter Grainger, others name only Grainger (who later became Bessie's musical director) and Everett Robbins. Establishing the rightful ownership of "Tain't Nobody's Bizness" became an issue when its inclusion in the 1973 film Lady Sings The Blues gave it renewed popularity. Williams again provides minimal, somewhat pedestrian accompaniments, but Bessie overcomes them with her eventful delivery and unwavering authority.
      It was around this time that Bessie discovered a bit of skullduggery on the part of Clarence Williams: he had led her to believe that she was under contract to Columbia, but she was actually signed up with him, and he was quietly pocketing half of her recording fee. Incensed, she and Jack Gee, her intended, paid a surprise visit to Williams' office. "They tell me Clarence crawled under his desk when he saw how mad they were," said Jack's niece, Ruby, "but Bessie and Jack got what they wanted." What they wanted was a voided contract, making Bessie free to sign with Columbia—which she promptly did.
      Bessie's first record shipped to Columbia's dealers on June 7,1923, and she marked the day by marrying Jack in a quiet Philadelphia ceremony. It was the beginning of a tempestuous, roller-coaster relationship, a union of two strong-willed people, neither of whom was comfortable with the other's lifestyle. Bessie breathed show business at this point, and Jack was essentially a meat-and-potatoes homebody who never learned to accept the open-mindedness required for survival in the entertainment world. "Jack was too conservative," said Ruby. "He wasn't in Bessie's life at all; he never understood show business, but he liked the money—that's the only reason he put up with it." From the very start, show business interfered with Bessie's marriage; with the new record on the market, she and Jack had to forego a honeymoon. Instead, Bessie em­barked on a tour arranged by Walker—who now functioned as both her manager and record producer— and Jack remained at his job in Philadelphia.
      Soon she would be known for her elaborate shows, but Bessie traveled light on her first theatrical trek as Columbia Records' "Queen of the Blues." All she brought with her was pianist Irving Johns, a rather plain set of costumes, and a simple canvas backdrop on which was painted the stark silhouette of magnolia trees against an orange sky and an incongruous full moon. It was to be a brief tour, a test run, but Walker played it safe by making the first stop Atlanta's "'81" Theatre, where success was almost guaranteed by Bessie's built-in following. Still, the turnout and enthusiasm went far beyond anybody's ex­pectations, and Bessie was asked to give a special mid­night performance for whites only. Only the most popular black artists were asked to put on a show for white audi­ences, and they did so gladly, because both ticket prices and salaries were increased on such occasions. From Atlanta, Bessie moved to the Frolic Theatre, in Birming­ham, where she broke all previous attendance records. A widely published contemporary newspaper account gives us some idea of her popularity:

"Streets blocked, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds were unable to gain entrance to this performance...Bessie Smith with Irvin Johns at the piano before their own special drop opened full stage with 'Nobody's Bizness if I Do,' with the 'Gulf Coast Blues' following, which received heavy applause, leaving the house in a riot."

      The writer, Billy Chambers, was less pleased with a bit of merchandising that took place between acts:

"'Buzzin' Harris [another performer] an­nounced the 'Gulf Coast Blues' for sale and went down into the audience to sell copies. This, we think, is nonprofessional at this or any other performance, as the lady's reputa­tion should sell the songs at every music house in the city."

      Note that Chambers named only "Gulf Coast Blues," which was considered to be the B-side of "Down Hearted Blues." Of course, one can't sell one side of a record with­out the other, and the coupling did extremely well, nearly 800,000 copies sold in its first six months of release. Many years later, Walker indicated that "Down Hearted Blues" was the selling side, attributing its success to a line from the lyrics: "...there was one line in the blues that did it. It was the first time it was used and it made that record a hit. It was 'Got the world in a jug, got the stopper in my hand.'" As Walker well knew, the song had already become a big hit in a version by its composer, Alberta Hunter, who had written him a letter just a few months earlier, suggesting that he record an instrumental version of the tune with King Oliver's band. Less than a month before he recorded Bessie, Walker wrote back that he was interested in re­cording Alberta, not Oliver, adding "we will try to see what can be worked out of the 'Down Hearted Blues' for you."
      The first tour was a short one, but now the waters had been tested and it was clear that Bessie Smith would be a real asset to Columbia Records. She recorded six more sides in June, this time accompanied by Fletcher Henderson, who was a far better pianist than Williams, and soon would also make his mark as a great band leader and arranger. On the new sides, Bessie's voice seems fuller, and more commanding; the improved accompaniments undoubtedly helped, and if Bessie needed self-assurance, she must have found it in the royal reception given her on the June tour, which clearly established her as the star of Columbia's growing race records roster.
      That roster now included Clara Smith —no relation— a fine singer who lent her somewhat thinner voice to the kinds of material Bessie sang, and often recorded with the same musicians. However, Walker wisely made sure that, as long as both women were signed to the label, they never duplicated each other's material. If Bessie—who refused to share a stage with another blues singer-resented Clara's signing to the label, she could find comfort in the fact that her fee was twice that of Clara's, and in the preferential treatment given her by Columbia's pro­motion department. As the blues fever caught on, and more and more women vied for the spotlight, titles were freely given; Clara was dubbed "Queen of the Moaners," and when Ma Rainey's label, Paramount Records, began advertising its new star, Ida Cox, as "Queen of the Blues," Columbia simply promoted Bessie to "Empress of the Blues."
      As if to quell rumors of an unfriendly rivalry between his two reigning blues queens, Walker united them on October 4, 1923 for the first of two recording dates. The session marked Bessie's fifteenth Columbia date, and Clara's eleventh. Bessie already had enough clout to refuse such a union, but she never felt threatened by Clara's singing; if anything, the duets underline Bessie's superior artistry. "I think Bessie knew she didn't have anything to worry about as long as they were together on a record," said Ruby, "but I guess she wouldn't have been too happy about being seen with her onstage, because Clara was much thinner and prettier than Bessie." Although a certain amount of professional competition surely existed between them, Bessie and Clara actually enjoyed a cor­dial relationship, at least until 1925, when a fist fight abruptly ended it. Their first joint session produced two duets, "Far Away Blues" and "I'm Going Back To My Used To Be," with Henderson at the piano. Neither selection captures the singers at their best, but these duets have a prepossessing quality that transcends their historical value.
      At the time of the initial Smith duets, Bessie could look back on a spectacularly successful summer on the road. Jack, bitten by his wife's success—not to mention her commanding weekly salary—quit his job and made a surprise appearance at Atlanta's "81" Theatre. Bessie was de­lighted to see him, but whatever endearing qualities she found in him were lost on the rest of the troupe. At first, he was more or less a fish out of water, a hanger-on, but the income generated by Bessie's show made him put away many of the prejudices he harbored against entertainers and heighten somewhat the low tolerance he had for their free-spirited lifestyle. He even began to identify himself as the show's manager, a role which Bessie's brother, Clarence, and a nephew, T.J. Hill, actually filled. "Bessie let Jack think he was managing the show," recalled Ruby, who herself had come aboard as a chorine, "but it was really a joke. He used to come to rehearsals and fine the girls if their legs didn't go up high enough, or if they missed a step—can you imagine? Later on, he started to gamble with the kids, just so he could win back some of the money Bessie paid them. She let him get away with all that, but it got so that the whole show hated Jack." On at least two occasions, Jack actually stepped in and—by sheer intimidation and stubbornness, not to mention a bit of greed—secured for Bessie a higher fee than had been offered, but he more often made a fool of himself. "Jack couldn't even manage himself," said Maud Smith, Clarence's wife. "He would always have signs saying 'Jack Gee presents Bessie Smith,' and he would call himself a manager, but he couldn't even sell a ticket. He could count money, and he could ask for money, but that's about it."
      In a singular act of generosity, Jack had pawned his night watchman's uniform and pocket watch to buy Bessie a suitably fashionable dress for her Columbia audition, but now it was Bessie's turn to give. "She bought him everything he had on," said Ruby. "Expensive suits, a gold watch, even a Cadillac—and she was always giving him money, so you better believe it, he got that dress back many times over. It wasn't much of a dress, anyway, because it was cheap, and Jack had no taste."
      Bessie lavished gifts on Jack, and she bought herself expensive costumes and fur coats, but she continued to live rather modestly. The Gee's took an apartment in Philadelphia, a place to stop between tours. "There was noth­ing special about it," Ruby recalled, "no fancy furniture or anything like that, just big easy chairs, a sofa, and lamps and tables with pictures and statues and things—Bessie never went in for no fancy stuff around the house, even when she made all that money, because she just wasn't there that much."
      As 1923 drew to a close, Bessie's professional life started to settle into a routine that had her touring extensively, performing for the first time in such places as Detroit and Cleveland, and regularly popping back to New York to make records. Her Columbia contract called for a minimum of 12 sides annually, but that obligation was already fulfilled by mid-June. The blues craze was still raging, but Bessie and her contemporaries sometimes left their 12-bar tales of woe to dip into Tin Pan Alley's less soulful fare. Eleven days after making the duets with Clara Smith, Bessie recorded a couple of non-blues: "Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time," and "My Sweetie Went Away." The former is a double-entendre vaudeville number, the latter a pop hit of the day; then, on the following day, she came down to earth with a glorious delivery of "Any Woman's Blues," a tune which Ida Cox had already recorded with its com­poser, pianist Lovie Austin. Bessie's version is a study in perfect timing and restraint, the kind of laid-back ap­proach that most New Yorkers found downright somnifer­ous. Band leader Sam Wooding was only exaggerating a little bit when he claimed to have visited the rest room at Small's Paradise without missing a single line of a Bessie Smith song. The accompanist is again Fletcher Hender­son, but Columbia's log reveals an intriguing bit of infor­mation: there were three takes of "Any Woman's Blues," and the first two—which remain unissued and, in fact, lost —also featured 19-year-old Coleman Hawkins.
      Recording alternate takes was a matter of routine and not necessarily an indication of flawed performance. Often, there were equipment failures: a lathe slowed down by cold weather, or a dull batch of wax. The waxy discs from which metal masters were molded could only be played back once, then they had to be scraped clean for reuse; thus there was no way to tell if a recording was satisfactory until it had been mastered and a test pressing made. For this reason, it behooved one to make alternates. The handful of Bessie's alternate takes that did survive tell us that she pretty much locked in her performances—if there is a noticeable difference between takes, it is in the instrumental accompaniments. Collectors, of course, want to find every scrap of sound, but the "Any Woman's Blues" rejects are particularly sought-after because of Hawkins' presence. A few months later, when Bessie made her first electrically recorded sides, Hawkins was again on hand, and this time the sides were released, but there is barely a hint of his presence.
      Reed player Don Redman, who would become one of Harlem's most popular band leaders in the following decade, frequently teamed up with Fletcher Henderson to accompany Bessie on records. In this set, we hear his clarinet on "Chicago Bound Blues," "Mistreating Daddy," "Haunted House Blues," and "Eavesdropper's Blues," four sides that are typical of Bessie's early output, but don't do his talent justice. The following year, there would be dramatic improvement in Bessie's accompaniments and, for that matter, in recording technology.
      Bessie was paid a higher fee for recording than most artists, including many white performers, but it was still a paltry sum of $200 per usable side, and there were no royalties. Records, however, provided an indirect income. Today, top artists can realize vast sums of money from sales of their recordings, relying on television and radio exposure for promotion. In Bessie's day, television was still somebody's futuristic fantasy, and radio was a totally new medium that had yet to discover records as broadcast material. This made phonograph records the most powerful promotional tool. Every major city now had its "race re­cords" shops, and if yours didn't, or you lived in a rural area, you simply ordered the latest Bessie sides by mail. Recordings and glowing write-ups in such black weekly newspapers as the Chicago Defender, Baltimore Afro-American, and Pittsburgh Courier paved the way for Bessie as she toured.
      Bessie made several live radio appearances. Unfortunately, stations had no means of recording such perform­ances in those days, so we must rely on newspaper reviews to tell us how she sounded. The Defenders Atlanta correspondent caught a broadcast made during a 1923 booking at the Beale Street Palace, in Memphis: "The spirit of the Old South came up from Beale Street at 11 o'clock last night to give the world a concert of Negro folk songs that will be remembered by WMC as long as a midnight frolic is broadcast from the roof of the Commercial Appeal. Bessie Smith, known from coast to coast as a singer of blues that are really blue, gave the air some currents that it will not forget as long as a cloud is left in the sky, and Memphis has its Beale Street.
      "The star of the frolic greeted the atmosphere with T'ain't Nobody's Business but My Own,' which she gave with unction and a rich Negro accent. Accompanied by Irvin Johns, her pianist, she followed with 'Beale Street Mama.' Singers have come and gone with that number, but it remained for Bessie to sing it before its possibilities were fathomed.
      "Perhaps the greatest hit Bessie registered last night for WMC was 'Outside Of That He's All Right With Me.' She repeated the number upon the request of a large number, who tele­phoned to the studio and wired from the Memphis territory ..While the orchestra built up an excellent background for the enter­tainment, Bessie carried the evening with her 'blues.'" It is a measure of Bessie's popularity that she was car­ried by WMC, the radio station of a white newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
      As she rang in the new year, Bessie had every reason to celebrate. Her marriage was still a happy one, Columbia couldn't record enough of her, and it was clear that the magic which so strongly appealed to her followers in Atlanta, Birmingham, and Memphis worked equally well on audiences in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland.

Don Wilkerson, tenor sax - Blue Note album liner notes


BLUE NOTE has consistently led the field in presenting new jazz talent to lovers of the idiom. Its continual search for fresh jazz faces and creative innovations has reaped swinging harvests. Blue Note 4107 introduces a new dynamic tenor sax virtuoso in Don Wilkerson. Though a new personality, he is truly concept-wise in the ways of the ever-changing jazz scene.

Born in 1932 in the sleepy town of Moreauville, Louisiana, Don Wilkerson received early musical education at home. His educational itinerary, musical and formal, included brief high school stays at Shreveport, Louisiana and Houston, Texas. It was at Houston's Jack Yates High that Don began playing alto sax in a beginners band. He made his professional debut for a $3.00 gross in Dayton, Texas. In 1948, however, he earned a chair with Amos Milburn, then an up-and-coming pianist and band leader. Later, on the coast, he alternated between the bands of Milburn and Charles Brown (of Three Blazers fame) and recorded with both. It was during this 1948-'49 period in Los Angeles that Don received his first jazz exposure by jamming with fast company such as Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray and Sonny Clark. Don left the West to return home to Houston.

Ray Charles had organized a band in the summer of 1954. By October of that year Don joined the band that was destined for greatness. Ray Charles's classics such as "I Got A Woman," "Come Back Baby," "This Little Girl Of Mine" and "Hallelujah," etc. feature Wilkerson tenor solos that are recognizable by all Charlesian devotees. Don Wilkerson's horn influences lie in the realms of both tenor and alto. He lists such tenormen as Jacquet, Cobb, Ammons, Gonsalves and Rollins; Parker and Hodges for alto inspiration. Special mention, however, is reserved for Sonny Stilt and Ike Quebec. Stitt is recognized by all as a great encourager. Don can attest to this. And it was Ike Quebec who brought this talent to the attention of Blue Note.

The listener will undoubtedly acquiesce to the fact that Preach Brother, Blue Note 4107, features six virile portraits of "soul." Although all of the featured tunes are Wilkerson originals, the general feeling of Ray Charles acts as an influential catalyst. Jazz-wise, the listener will react favorably to the expressive talents of Don on tenor; Grant Green on guitar, Sonny Clark on piano, Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. This session is distinctly a "shouter" affair with down-home overtones. This should not prevent urbane cries of "OOWHEE!" from more sophisticated jazz aficionados, whether in a mass wild chant or individually.

"Jeanie-Weenie" - This brisk shuffler opens the session with Don's tenor vividly jumping for joy in the first chorus. This opus features good jazz guitar with bluesy connotations flourishingly displayed by Grant Green. Fluid Wilkerson tenor sounds permeate throughout.

"Homesick Blues" - reminds this writer vividly of "Big Leg Woman," an anatomical survey in the form of an old blues classic. Don manages adequately to affect an alto sound in "Homesick." This lush blues also features expressively, in solo, excellent piano and guitar by Sonny Clark and Grant Green, respectively. The insistence of Billy Higgins's drums pulsates throughout.

"Dem Tambourines" - A shouter enmeshed in what could be termed as Afro-Creole. Billy Higgins's drums parallel the tambourines, making this basically a rhythmical jazz "troika." The Wilkerson tenor concocts an uninhibited flow of ideas throughout...Amensville!

"Camp Meetin"' - A veritable "wailer" that compounds solos between Don and Grant Green. Grant employs no boppish cliches as he displays Charlie Christian-like ideas. With all jazz systems in "go," the listener will agree that these are no lazy lads.

"The Eldorado Shuffle" - Don opens this stanza creatively with a tastily contrived tenor solo. Green's guitar seconds this funky motion. Sonny Clark comes in for a short, uncomplicated stay but makes his presence felt.

"Pigeon Peas" - This palatable jazz delicacy shows Don's preoccupation with the Arnett Cobb influence. This choice stomp waxes more in the modern idiom, especially in Sonny Clark's piano. Butch Warren's bass along with Billy Higgins's drums gives this opus great depth. Don's tenor leads this stanza home to its delightful conclusion.
We feel the listener in his pursuit in the field of "digsmanship" will embrace the creative influence of Don Wilkerson.


This is Don Wilkerson's second LP for Blue Note. His first, Preach Brother! (4107) was in a more overt rhythm-and-blues groove than the present collection, and contained something of a hit in a piece with the self-explanatory title, "Camp Meetin' ."

On the jacket notes to that album, it was pointed out that Wilkerson played most of the tenor solos in the Ray Charles band of 1954, the band that recorded the first great Charles hits such as "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" and "I Got A Woman." Wilkerson was to that band what another Texas tenorman, David "Fathead" Newman is to the present one. I think it is significant that Wilkerson had so much experience, and because of it, it is more than coincidental that Blue Note should be the company to record him.

Charles's overwhelming success as a singer has fairly effectively obscured the fact that for years he led one of the best small jazz bands in the business, a sort of successor to Louis Jordan's Tympani Five. How deeply this stylistic tradition has affected contemporary jazz is indicated when one remembers that Sonny Rollins has called Jordan his first influence, and that Art Blakey has called the Charles group his favorite band. The Charles instrumental are so similar in intent to what Blakey and Horace Silver have been doing that it seems natural that Wilkerson's music, in much the same vein, would appeal to the Blue Note people.

To continue the parallel for a moment, the main difference between the music of Jordan-Charles and that of Blakey-Silver is that the former two have spent much of their time playing music for dancing. Therefore, their music is often of a functional character, while the Messengers and Silver play what could more accurately be called art music, for listening only. It is this functional quality that is happily present in Wilkerson's work. He has listed as tenor influences such men as Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Gene Ammons, Paul Gonsalves, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt and Ike Quebec. Significantly, I think, all except Rollins have spent a good part of their professional lives playing for dancing; and certainly, Rollins has kept the quality of dance in his work more than all but a very few major jazzmen. I hear the sound of Cobb in Wilkerson more than that of anyone else, but it may be only the famous "cry" that seems indigenous to the work of Texas tenormen. And it might not be irrelevant to mention that the first great Basie band, one of the greatest of dance bands, was largely staffed with men from that Southwest tradition.

The most recent manifestation of the jazz-dance combo has been the countless small groups which feature tenor and/or guitar with organ and drums. One of the most recent musicians of importance to emerge from the workshop of those groups has been the guitarist Grant Green, and it is entirely fitting that he should have a major role to play on this set. He has several successful Blue Note LPs to his credit, and my own more extensive comments on his playing can be found on the back of Sunday Mornin' (4099). The pianist Johnny Acea is also admirably suited to this company. Originally a trumpeter, he worked in the band of the great Texas pianist Sammy Price. Much of his recent work has been with Illinois Jacquet, and he has been Dinah Washington's accompanist. It is significant that on the LP that signalled Ray Charles's entrance into popular music, The Genius Of Ray Charles, the most overt blues performance, 'Two Years Of Torture," was arranged by Acea. Bassist Lloyd Trotman's experience includes time spent with such disparate people as Eddie Heywood, Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington, Pete Brown, Wilbur De Paris, Boyd Raeburn and Johnny Hodges. And finally, there is drummer Willie Bobo, most widely known for his part in the current popularity of Afro-jazz.

The Texas influence on Wilkerson is evident in his choice of material. The opener, Wilkerson's own "Senorita Eula," is a blues with Spanish (or Mexican) overtones. Wilkerson's preaching solo more than justifies the album's title, Elder Don, but as impressive as its emotional quality are the strong order and logic he brings to his ideas. Also interesting is the economical way he brings strong support to Green's single-line solo. Green, the only holdover from Wilkerson's previous LP, shows a great affinity with the leader's approach

Indirectly, perhaps Ray Charles can also be credited with the inclusion in this album of Bob Wills's "San Antonio Rose." Just as he raised so-called "rock 'n' roll" to the level of art, Charles has recently pointed out to jazzmen and pop artists alike the possibilities inherent in country-and-western music. "Rose" is one of the best of the song's, a classic in its field, and Wilkerson gives it an unusual and appropriate performance. The Cuban overtones in the statement of the tune are not dropped from the solos, as many groups would do, but continue through Wilkerson's and Green's choruses to reach a peak in Johnny Acea's piano solo, which would be perfectly in place in a Cuban band. The result is a performance which combines country music, Cuban music and jazz into a unique, exciting whole.

Three other Wilkerson originals, "Scrappy," "Lone Star Shuffle" and "Drawin' A Tip,"
account for half the LP. The first is a "rhythm" number, played with fast intensity. The second, a shuffle blues, as its title implies, is typical of the power and excitement which often erupts on the bandstands of local clubs late at night, when the musicians are in good form and the audience reception has been responsible for raising the temperature of the room. The third could loosely be described as a medium jump number, also a club standby.
The final number, "Poor Butterfly," is a ballad. Much space has been devoted to dance music in these remarks, but Wilkerson's performance here certainly necessitates further comment. Much dancing is slow dancing, of course, and the rare jazzman who can sustain the dancing feel at a slow tempo while still creating meaningful music is a valuable man to have around. Many young musicians can create nothing but funeral music at this tempo, but Wilkerson manages to be light and charming, while still properly reflective.

Taken together, these six pieces by tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson provide a fascinating
example of the fact that while many of today's jazzmen have left behind the dance origins
of their music, others have retained those origins and use them as a basis to make highly
direct and satisfyinq music.


SHOUTIN' is Don Wilkerson's third celebration of the blues heritage for this label. (His previous Blue Note albums are Preach Brother!, BLP 4107 and Elder Don, BLP 4121.)

Wilkerson plays a very basic style of jazz, a genre that has gone largely untouched by post-Bop advances (at least not by many beyond those of Horace Silver and the early Sonny Rollins) and which is informed almost exclusively - technically and inspirationally - by the essential sources, gospel and the blues. The scope and breadth of its expression is restricted pretty much to the experiences and emotions which these sources are about. On this basis, and by the standards of 1963, it is probably valid to call Wilkerson's jazz "primitive." But this is not meant to imply a derogation of either the music or the man who is making it, rather it is intended to define both in their relationship to other contemporary jazz forms and artists.

Wilkerson's music is no less contemporary than, say, Ornette Coleman's or Cecil Taylor's, for it too would express a contemporary reality; in Wilkerson's instance the reality of Harlem - most immediately, for him, East Texas Harlem and New York, Chicago or San Francisco Harlem as well. If the Colemans and Taylors have somehow managed to transcend their origins, escape the trappings of the ghetto, go on to discover other realities, and learn how their origins can nourish rather than confine their art, the Wilkersons work within the limitations of what is accessible to them, the traditions and sources they are permitted to claim. But compelling music can be made within these boundaries as the album at hand will witness, for Wilkerson and his associates are into the music. Their work has fire and commitment and these finally are all that matter because it is these energies which move and touch.
Many jazz musicians will describe that prerequisite quality and dimension of "soul" as the badge of the hardships that are endured in the struggle to merely survive. But soul, when it is genuinely present, is more than that. The very act of making music is, in itself, not only a means of coming to terms with the circumstances of the environment, but also a way of transcending the environment. Soul comes from the victories that one may win over the environment, which is to say the ability to make use of one's creative capacities. It is about feeling good too, and the best of our jazzmen, the most soulful of them, have arrived at this.

Obviously Wilkerson has. Much jazz of this genre is blunted by anger. But Wilkerson's music would seem to be more about joy than anger. "Sweet Cake" is the work of a New Orleans musician and friend of Wilkerson named Edward Frank. But "Movin' Out," "Cookin' With Clarence," "Happy Johnny" (which has undertones of Miles Davis's "Milestones") are all Wilkerson's lines; all of them simple, rhythmically alive and infectious. "Blues For J," also by Wilkerson, is an impassioned communication of the basic statement. How sophisticated Wilkerson and his colleagues are as regards the kind of jazz they choose to play, is perhaps most stirringly demonstrated on this track.

Rhythm is the key virtue of Wilkerson's talent. As an instrumentalist he is not in possession of the big, booming sound of many of his similarly persuaded colleagues, but his solos have great movement and lifting rhythmic charge. "Happy Johnny" and, to an even greater extent, "Cookin' With Clarence," on which the entire group excels (Grant Green and John Patton contribute electric solos), are exemplary of this, Wilkerson is also able to sustain a ballad tempo (on this album it is "Easy Living") without the price of melodic paralysis. Patton's accompaniment on this number is especially lovely.

Wilkerson came to this series of Blue Note recordings with a background firmly entrenched in the idiom, though he has not gone entirely untouched by more advanced jazz players. He was born in Moreauville, Louisiana in 1932 and grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana and Houston. His first jobs were in those areas and later he traveled to Southern California where he worked and recorded with R&B bands, notably those of Amos Milburn and Charles Brown. During his time on the coast he also got to play with such jazz musicians as Sonny Clark, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. In 1954 Wilkerson joined a band newly organized by Ray Charles and he is the featured tenor soloist on many of Charles's most popular recordings; "I Got A Woman/' 'This Little Girl Of Mine/' "Come Back Baby," "Hallelujah," "\ Love Her So," etc.

The tenor saxophonists whom Wilkerson acknowledges to have made the strongest impressions upon him have been Sonny Stiff, Ike Quebec, Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Gene Ammons, Paul Gonsalves and Sonny Rollins. These are exceptional players, at least one is more than that, but it is not unlikely that Wilkerson, in the not too distant future, will achieve a similar stature.

The accompanying players on this set; Green, guitar; Patton, organ and Ben Dixon, drums, are outstanding exponents of the idiom in their own right. Two of them, Green and Patton, have their own series of Blue Note albums, and Dixon is generally considered .to be one of the most talented of the newer guitar players — probably only Kenny Burrell challenges his new and lofty eminence on the New York scene. Listen particularly to his fascinating work on "Cookin' With Clarence" and "Happy Johnny." Patton can claim an original ear and, though he too can shout, a uniquely gifted sense of the more subtle expressive possibilities of the organ. His comping on all the numbers in this set is brilliantly alive.

"Alive" is a word that could be accurately applied to what happens on the entire album. The conditions out of which these musicians have come are hardly conducive to anything but the opposite of that word, but Wilkerson and the others have discovered in their music where the life is.