Clara Smith

Clara Smith: The Essential

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When in 2001 the Classic Blues label reissued 36 out of the 125 extant recordings by blues singer Clara Smith, an attempt was clearly made to select examples that fit both the album and series title Essential. Each of her most important collaborators are represented on this collection, but the omission of all but one of the six recordings she made with Louis Armstrong constitutes a serious and somewhat inexplicable goof. All three of the originally issued duets with Bessie Smith are provided (including their gutsy reading of Ida Cox's "I'm Going Back to My Used to Be"), along with three of the four duets she sang with guitarist Lonnie Johnson. "Oh! Mr. Mitchell" and "Where Is My Man?" have accompaniment by Harlem stride pianist, composer and bandleader James P. Johnson. Clara Smith's other piano accompanists included songwriters Porter Grainger and Lemuel Fowler, who backs her on his own "Percolatin' Blues." She is heard with pianist Fletcher Henderson and various members of his orchestra, including (in addition to Armstrong) trombonist Big Charlie Green and saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman; on tracks one and twelve she is accompanied by trumpeter Freddy Jenkins, whose path would subsequently lead through the brass section of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. "My Good-For-Nothin' Man" has harmonica passages by one Herbert Leonard with guitar support from Leonard Myers. On the peculiarly funny "Ol' Sam Tages," her pianist, who engages in a bit of vaudeville chortling on the flipside ("Unemployed Papa-Charity Workin' Mama"), is identified as "Asbestos Burns". Perhaps the most unusual instrument heard in this jazz-infused blues collection is the cello operated by Marion Cumbo on the moody slow drag "I Wanna Go Home." Like any of the other entries in the Classic Blues Essential series, this tidily remastered sampler covering the years 1923-1931 may serve as a sort of non-linear appetizer. For those who aren't shy about tracking down six chronologically arranged volumes of Clara Smith on Document, she's worth studying in greater depth than is possible with the Essential edition's random selection. For access to all six of the wonderful recordings she made with Louis Armstrong, go directly to Document's third volume, which covers her entire output from the year 1925.

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