The Empress Of The Blues, Bessie Smith, got her start busking with her brother in Chattanooga as a young girl. Still a child when she auditioned for the Stokes troupe, she won the gig as a dancer, not a singer, because that chair was already filled by none other than Ma Rainey, The Mother Of The Blues! Both singers became major stars, enjoying long and prolific performing and recording careers. Bessie Smith’s “Thinking Blues” is a great intro to this magnificent and hugely influential American music legend. I found a very good sonic version at YouTube.com
Backed by her Georgia Jazz Band, here is the great Ma Rainey, reflecting on the joy and consequences of “Booze and Blues.” So good. This Youtube post “show more” is a great biography of this talented woman who was truly a force in the Blues.
Ida Cox – also known as the “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues” – worked her way up through the early blues circuit to become a popular headliner. A versatile artist, Cox also achieved fame as a successful vaudeville performer. Check out her powerful and evocative vocal on the classic, “Mojo Hand Blues”. A hard-to-find 78 RPM vinyl, here to enjoy as a video.
This scratchy copy of a Son House classic is pure gold. A master at creating unusual chord structures, Son House uses his vocal and guitar to create moving double-harmonies. Jack White of White Stripes fame dedicated the White Stripe’s first album to Son House.
This song is personal favorite of mine. Carl Martin’s humorous admonition to all prize fighters, telling them to stay off Joe Louis’ beat is a classic. There isn’t a wasted word in this song, and Martin’s delivery is as solid as a punch from the champ himself. It’s a shame the 78 has the snap, crackle, pop of an old recording.
Born in January of 1900 in Allatoona, Georgia, Clayton McMichen had his great success recording with Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers and Hometown Boys, and also as a solo artist. His solo effort performance of “Grave In The Pines” is a starkly sweet and sincere lament to a fallen love. McMichen performed regularly in Louisville, Kentucky until retiring in 1955, and later returning to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
This righteous song claims freedom from stodgy ways. Punk before there was Punk. A blues standard, this was adapted for fiddle by Earl Johnson, who learned to play the fiddle from his father. I’m sure you’ll notice the attitude this fiddler’s arrangement has. I admire the spunk!
The great Betty Roche lays down a classic be-bop jazz blues vocal. She joined Ellington’s band in 1943. Trouble means the same after 60-plus years.
The great Leadbelly, with one of his classic sides that helped define American music in the 20th century and beyond. Over his own distinctive, relaxed guitar accompaniment, Leadbelly’s vocal on this recording is simply magnificent. Widely revered by music fans and covered by blues scholars, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” was also sung by Kurt Cobain on Nirvana’s Unplugged album.
Here’s a magnificent recording of Duke Ellington’s orchestra performing “Louisiana.” Back then there was no such thing as an overdub, much less any auto-tune or fancy editing software. Heck, you even had to mix the record while you were playing it into one mic! These cats could play for real. What a joy to hear such craft and art, delivered with humor and heart.