Wednesday, 9 January 2008

CD Review - Bessie Smith

Blues Queen: The Definitive Collection

Tutored by Ma Rainey and an inspiration to Janis Joplin, Bessie Smith was vital to the development of the Blues. This superb overview of her recording career, which began in the early 1920s and lasted a decade, gives voice to all the emotions that make up the Blues – sadness, defiance and joy.

“I swear I won’t call no copper/When I’m beat up by my papa/Tain’t nobody’s business if I do,” she sings, years before Billie Holliday. It’s an assertion of power. Sometimes the only defiance available to the oppressed is handling misfortune the way they alone decide.

Smith, who lost both parents by age 9, became the highest-paid black performer of the ’20s. She’s backed on these 24 tracks by a who’s who of the era’s musicians, from Louis Armstrong to Benny Goodman.

But her singing’s the attraction. She had a voice so true the hiss of records made 80 years ago falls away, unnoticeable. As the excellent liner notes say, Smith, the Empress of the Blues, had “a strong personality which she imposed on every tune she chose to sing.”

The tunes she chose stand the test of time. Wonder where Clapton got “Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out”? Smith recorded it in 1929 as she was about to enter her own lean years.

The Blues gave way to jazz. Smith sank into alcoholism. She died in a car accident in 1937, aged 43. Her grave remained unmarked until 1970, when Joplin, herself months from death, bought her a headstone.

This collection illuminates the arc of Smith’s career, from the Dixieland joy of “Cakewalkin’ Babies (From Home)” to the sorrow of “St. Louis Blues.” One can imagine the tears that flowed from seeing her in person.

But this is what’s left to us, and it’s well worth owning.

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