|Don Redman, James P. Johnson, Eddie Lang, Clarence Williams, Jack Teagarden, and
Of the female blues singers of the early twentieth century, the two giants are Ma Rainey
(the “Mother of the Blues”) and Bessie Smith (the “Empress of the Blues”). Ma Rainey
was the older of the two, and interestingly they once worked in a show together, Rainey
being the show’s singer and Smith a dancer. Nothing, however, indicates the older
woman gave the younger much in the way of singing lessons. Rainey made about one
hundred recordings before she “went out of style,” according to Paramount in 1928.
Smith eventually put out over a hundred and sixty records and would undoubtedly
have produced more had she lived beyond her forty-third year.
This double CD set provides a fairly generous selection of some forty-eight tracks. The
title wisely makes no claim that these are her “best,” period, but they are certainly
representative. Despite the often stellar accompaniment she gets on some of these tracks,
I tend to prefer those where she is backed only by piano as it is easier to focus on her
voice, rather than being somewhat distracted by the accompaniment, often quite brilliant
in its own right—witness the superb obbligatos from Louis Armstrong on St. Louis Blues
or Reckless Blues, or the solid group backing on Cake Walkin’ Babies from Home or I’m
down in the Dumps. And what a voice it is—rich, powerful, vibrant—almost any
adjective of praise one can muster. And what a superbly controlled vibrato! In her
emotional outpouring she personifies the blues, expressing feelings that come from
actually living, not just observing, what she is singing about—unrequited love, physical
abuse, betrayal, abandonment, ostracism—all subjects of many blues.
Another remarkable thing about her voice is that it overcame the shortcomings of
acoustical recording. Columbia did not stop recording Bessie Smith acoustically until
mid 1926 or thereabouts, so a good portion of her output consisted of acoustic
recordings, and in this collection all of tracks on disc 1 and the first couple on disc 2 are
acoustic. But on the acoustic recordings one can hear right away that her robust, big
voice is not much diminished by the cone into which she sang (her accompanists do not
always fare quite so well); out it came almost as warm and convincing as it did later
when caught by a microphone on the electric recordings, which comprise the rest of CD 2.
She not only sang the blues, she also turned her hand to composing blues numbers—and
with some success. Several of her compositions are to be found in this compilation, and
at least two of them, Reckless Blues and Young Woman’s Blues, can stand beside those
of any other composer.
The tragedy of her death in an automobile accident in 1937 at such a young age lies not
only in her relative youth but also in the many recordings which were never to be made.
On the headstone which Janis Joplin (along with one of Smith’s friends) had
commissioned for Smith’s otherwise unmarked grave, is the inscription: “The Greatest
Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.” There may be some debate about
“Greatest,” but to date the latter part of the inscription holds true as Bessie Smith’s
recordings are still being issued and played today. And this double CD set makes clear
why that is the case.
A UK-based record label, Acrobat specialises in collectors’ and re-issue CDs, which are
available on Amazon, cd Universe, and, at times, eBay.