Bessie Smith

1928-1929

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One of the greatest partnerships in all of recorded blues was the teaming up of Bessie Smith and champion trombone man Big Charlie Green. Their collaboration is well represented by the opening tracks on this volume of the chronologically reissued recordings of Bessie Smith. "Empty Bed Blues, Pt. 2" opens with a lurching, grinding trombone ostinato that matches perfectly the spirit and texture of Smith's testimonial. "Put It Right Here" could serve as the best example on record of this singer's irresistible way of presenting a song. The timing is perfect and the humorous lyrics are accentuated by the trombone with great precision. Somebody ought to put out a CD consisting of every record these two people ever made together. The next session in Smith's story took place on August 23, 1928. "Yes Indeed He Do" would be closely imitated four years later in the group singalong "Yes Suh!" as performed by Billy Banks and Jack Bland's Rhythmakers. Five records cut on August 24th handle the topics of social inequality, interpersonal relationships, and alcoholism. On "Poor Man's Blues" Smith speaks directly to the wealthy, and during "Washerwoman's Blues" she discusses the combined problems of race and class. "Me and My Gin" paints a grim portrait of the addict and her mental condition. Cornered and besotted, Smith vows to take on the Army and the Navy armed only with her bottle of fermented spirits. On May 8, 1929, guitarist Eddie Lang and pianist Clarence Williams assisted in the creation of three delightfully smutty sides dwelling on Smith's sexual appetite. The sound of Lang's guitar percolating along with her voice makes these selections especially nice. "I've Got What It Takes" and "Nobody Knows You" are two of Smith's toughest performances on record. Having what amounted to Clarence Williams' Blue Five backing her up seems to have given the singer solid support for self-expression. Anyone who has seen the motion picture St. Louis Blues will cherish the film soundtrack included in this chronology. The singer stands at the bar in a saloon, crying -- and singing -- into a mug of beer. The drama of a strong woman at the mercy of a man without any conscience is played out on the screen and can be envisioned by the listener. The 40-voice Hall Johnson Choir roars away behind Smith as she sways miserably. A hot band led by James P. Johnson wails with abandon as acrobatic waiters spin and tumble through the crowd without upsetting their trays full of drinks. Smith's no-good man shows up, appears to reconcile with her, and does a slow dance in her arms, but then pushes her away and laughs derisively while brandishing a wad of cash he has snatched from her purse! Everyone ought to see this film at least once. There are distortion problems with the soundtrack as presented here, and the nearly 11-minute sequence has been unnecessarily portioned into four segments -- a too-faithful reproduction of the Circle Records issue -- even though the uninterrupted soundtrack is available elsewhere. The disc closes with "Take It Right Back" -- featuring one of Clarence Williams' best piano accompaniments -- and a pair of lusty tunes with even finer piano by James P. Johnson.

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