Josie Miles

Complete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (1924-1925)

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By October of 1924, Josie Miles had developed into a surefooted performer who could belt out a song more convincingly than she had on many of the records she cut in 1922 and 1923. The second volume of her complete works as reissued by Document in 1996 opens with a pair of "Edison" records that offer that label's extra minute of duration, which was a real technological bonus in 1924. At various points throughout this collection the singer is accompanied by the Choo Choo Jazzers and the Kansas City Five, groups that are most memorable for the playing of Bubber Miley and Johnny Dunn -- a fine example is the lowdown cornet solo on "Sweet Man Joe." Her forceful delivery, which some might find jarring at times, needs to be put in perspective. Most or all of her recording career took place before the development of electrical sound amplification. This means that like many entertainers of her generation, she had to learn to project her voice in order to be audible over ensembles that greatly outnumbered her. The best example of someone who forged a singing voice under those conditions and retained a measure of that forcefulness long after microphones enabled other singers to croon is Jimmy Rushing, the man who could always be heard over the orchestras of Bennie Moten and Count Basie. Josie Miles was a shouter. Her delivery during "Temper'mental Papa" is not exactly subtle, but she was capable of greater versatility than you hear on this one record. That's why it's good to have 22 consecutive examples. (Incidentally, if blues historians Paul Oliver and Chris Albertson are correct, the 1928 gospel recordings of Missionary Josephine Miles were not recorded by this same individual, so that what you get in this collection is the last of Josie Miles' surviving recorded works.) As was the case with many reissue compilations released by Document during the '90s, little effort was made to remove surface noise from problematic platters. It is a pity that both "De Clouds Are Gwine to Roll Away" and "It Ain't Gonna Rain No More" are partially obfuscated at the beginning of each side by a scratchy haze, for these are two of Josie Miles' most intriguing minstrel-type performances on record. Most of the transfers, however, are just ducky, and the voice of Josie Miles comes across like little claps of thunder. The antiquated charm of some of these songs is marvelous, especially "I'm a Cabaret Nightingale" and the pop tune "There'll Be Some Changes Made," destined to become a swinging jazz standard after Fats Waller goosed it up in 1935. Six vaudeville duets with comedian Billy Higgins, on the other hand, are plucky theatrical exercises, some of which contain abusive banter and violent imagery. During "Picnic Time," a scripted routine that was also recorded by white entertainers, Higgins threatens to cut off Josie's ears and "coax" her "with a brick." If this kind of razor-brandishing rhetoric was unfortunately typical of minstrelsy and early Negro vaudeville, the "A to Z Blues" is by far one of the most shockingly violent songs ever recorded. Here Higgins methodically threatens to carve the entire alphabet on every surface of his female companion's body, including her scalp, her face, her arms, her breasts, the soles of her feet, and other more tender regions that are grimly implied. Shortly afterward, as if in response to this horrifying litany, Josie Miles recorded the "Mad Mama's Blues," her over-the-top description of uncontainable rage, expressed at first in random multiple homicide using a Winchester firearm and ultimately escalating to the destruction of an entire city by means of gunpowder and dynamite.

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