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.

1 comment:

Chris Albertson said...


Where have I read that before?

If you like Bessie Smith, your taste must be impeccable!