Bessie Smith – The Complete Columbia Recordings – Columbia/ Legacy 88725 40310 2 – 10-CD box set ****:
(Bessie Smith, vocals; Benny Goodman, clarinet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Coleman Hawkins, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Fletcher Henderson, leader; Russell Smith, trumpet; Billy Taylor, bass; Clarence Williams, piano; Chu Berry, tenor saxophone; Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Charlie Dixon, banjo; Clarence Williams, piano; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Charlie Green, trombone; Joe “Fox” Smith, trumpet; Bob Fuller, clarinet, alto saxophone; Stanley Miller, saxophone; Robert Robbins, violin; Bob Escudero, tuba; Clara Smith, vocals; Elmer Snowden, banjo; Fred Longshaw, piano, reed organ; Irving Johns, piano)
When you hear a Bessie Smith song for the first time, two initial impressions may strike you: the quaintness of the 78 rpm transfer and how much comes through from the ancient recording. (Recordings of opera singers from the era like Nellie Melba do not fare so well.) If you listen to the dozen or so of her songs available on the internet, you may conclude that Bessie was definitely talented, and even a trailblazer. “But surely these are the best of them,” you say, “anything more couldn’t be this good.” But if you hear every song she ever recorded, all 166 of them now available on this Columbia Recordings box set, you will think otherwise. You will be amazed at the consistency of her style, her consummate skill, as well as the talents of the many people she played with.
The recordings span from 1923 to 1933, stopping four years before her untimely death in an automobile accident at 43. (According to historian Angela Davis, the blues recording deferred to popular recording during the Great Depression.) Since these songs were all cut on 10-inch records, none is longer than 3:30. Oddly, that is enough for most, except for “Empty Bed Blues,” her only two-sider. (Somebody wanted a double dose of those funky horns.) Listen to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and you’ll know why Bessie’s version made the top 20 in 1927. Although not a blues number, it shows her enthusiastic skill in singing popular song.
And the blues she sings? Ah yes, the blues. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” may be well known, but it’s still not a warhorse and may never be one. Its message about the many assaults poverty makes on body and spirit will still stir your soul every time you hear it. Then listen to the more obscure “Poor Man’s Blues” and you’ll get a similar dose of impassioned social commentary: “Listen to my pleading, can’t stand these hard times long.” It too will jerk your heart out. There are songs about death like “Graveyard Dream Blues” and “Cemetery Blues,” both of which featuring fancy (and even humorous) piano playing by Jimmie Jones. And of course there’s Bessie’s prominent lusty side, with “Put a Little Sugar in my Bowl, ” “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine,” “I’m Wild About That Thing,” and many others redolent with food metaphors like salami, hot dogs, and buns. Speaking of humor, “Haunted House Blues” is filled with Fletcher Henderson’s and Don Redman’s whimsical musical effects and J.C. Johnson’s lyrics, which compare her “mistreating daddy” to a ghost that haunts her. Probably because of the pervasive dichotomy between spirituals (“God’s music”) and the blues (“the devil’s music”), there are only two spirituals in the entire collection. Nobody ever accused Bessie of being churchy.
I did notice a few blemishes. “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Nashville Women’s Blues” are so worn that scratchiness is the first feature you notice, not their music. I’d heard rumors that another collection of Bessie’s music, released by Frog Records, featured superior restoration of her discs. I contacted them, and they sent me mp3’s of their versions of these songs. The difference was striking. Not only had they cleaned up the scratches in “Nashville Women’s Blues,” but they’d located an alternate version of “Gulf Coast Blues.” The tempo is slower and the piano plodding, but there are no scratches. If you are thinking of purchasing from this label, be forewarned: you will pay at least twice as much for this music as for the Columbia edition.
A few production decisions puzzle me. The song “Muddy Water” appears twice, on disc 3-2 and 5-1. Disc 5-2 consists of interviews with her niece-by-marriage Ruby Smith, who was nine years younger and later, a decent blues singer herself. She speaks (probably the early seventies) with Chris Albertson of her bawdy adventures on the road with Bessie. A little of this goes a long way and 71 minutes of it, with no mention of music, becomes tiresome. Also, since this set was released as a compilation of double CDs from the 1990s, disc 5-1 concludes with just the soundtrack of Bessie’s sole film appearance, the 14-minute St. Louis Blues (on which the famous song is based). Couldn’t Sony have pulled this audio segment and included a DVD of the film instead? (It’s even available on Youtube.)
For many listeners, this collection will serve as a hefty foray into not just to Bessie’s music, but the beginnings of recorded blues, with their many themes of betrayal, death, oppression, and raw bursting sexuality. And for most, the sound will be good enough. I for one am happy to have it.
A posthumous release of late career Bill Evans in SACD format adds to the formidable legacy.