Bessie Smith

The Complete Columbia Recordings

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When Columbia issued the first of the five volumes in Bessie Smith's complete recordings series in 1991 -- as a logical follow-up to 1990's wildly successful Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings box -- they were simply hoping for another hit. As the Smith series continued through to its conclusion in 1996, each volume was greeted with more enthusiasm than the last. These volumes eventually went out of print in the 21st century and left a void in her catalog. As part of its Complete Recordings series, Sony Legacy has repackaged those five volumes in a compact, handsome, justly priced ten-disc box. Each double-disc is given its own gatefold, LP-styled sleeve, and its tracks replicate the chronology of the original sets. This box contains a liner essay by musical historian, archivist, and writer Ken Romanowski and features full discographical annotation. These recordings cover a decade-long span from 1923-1933, when Smith was a million-plus-selling artist who was justly dubbed, "Empress of the Blues," and almost singlehandedly created a mass market for blues recordings in the United States. While the general populace will be familiar with her hits such as "Empty Bed Blues," "T'Ain Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do," "St. Louis Blues," "A Little Sugar in My Bowl," and many others recorded by other artists, most blues aficionados regard these original recorded performances as definitive versions. Just as importantly, Smith's accompaniment reads like a who's-who of some of the most legendary names in the early history of jazz. They include Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Fletcher Henderson, Chu Berry, Eddie Lang, Jack Teagarden, Clarence Williams, and many others. Disc nine contains the music from the 1929 biographical short film St. Louis Blues, and session outtakes and alternates. The final disc contains a fascinating, often hilarious interview by Chris Albertson with Ruby Smith (Smith's niece by marriage and a fine blues singer in her own right) about the life and adventures of Bessie. While it's true that there isn't anything here that hasn't been released before, this set is of great musical and historical value; it's essential for any blues enthusiast who didn't purchase the original sets.

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