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Reviewers: Don Mather, Dick Stafford, Marc Bridle, John Eyles, Ian Lace, Colin Clarke, Jack Ashby


BESSIE SMITH (1894-1937)

St Louis Blues

Original recordings Volume 2: 1924-1925


8.120691 [58.38]



Haunted House Blues [3.13]
Eavesdropper’s Blues [2.57]
Frankie Blues [3.28]
Rainy Weather Blues [3.33]
Salt Water Blues [3.25]
Weeping Willow Blues [3.06]
Sinful Blues [3.08]
The St Louis Blues [3.06]
Reckless Blues [2.58]
Sobbin’ Hearted Blues [2.58]
Cold in Hand Blues [3.10]
You’ve been a Good Old Wagon [3.22]
Cake Walkin’ Babies [3.10]
Yellow Dog Blues [2.56]
Soft Pedal Blues [3.13]
Careless Love Blues [3.26]
Dixie Flyer Blues [3.06]
I ain’t going to play no second Fiddle [3.24]
With various instrumentalists including Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong
rec 1924-1925

I still have my parent’s 78rpm of ‘Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer’, my first encounter with the unique vocal style of Bessie Smith (later versions by Billie Holliday and Diana Ross come nowhere it). This excellent Naxos album continues where Vol 1 (1921-1924) left off, another 18 tracks of infectious listening, Smith generally accompanied by two or three players at most (a reed or brass instrument plus keyboard, no rhythm section). Listen carefully to the words (the transfer is up to David Lennick’s best), and look out for gems such as the duets with Robert Robbins’ violin in ‘Frankie’s Blues’, and trombonist Charlie Green in ‘Rainy Weather Blues’ followed immediately by ‘Salt Water Blues’. Smith’s voice can wear one down, especially in a disc of music in similar style and emotional vein throughout (Blues are Blues and when you’re feeling blue, this is the result), but there are some colourful instrumental moments, such as ‘Weeping Willow Blues’ in which background players Joe Smith on cornet and Green illuminate the text. Pianist Fred Longshaw, who became her regular accompanist, does much the same in ‘Sinful Blues’, and here try to catch Smith’s unique moment on solo kazoo, after the lovely hands-off-or-else line to the girls, ‘There’s nothing in the street my man can’t get at home’.

A booklet misprint credits her first encounter with the 23 year-old Louis Armstrong (14 January 1925) as pianist in ‘St Louis Blues’ on the eighth track, but of course he’s on cornet here and elsewhere on a further half dozen tracks. Longshaw, meanwhile, has switched to another unique sound, reed organ at this same session, which included ‘Reckless Blues’ on the other side, what appears a bare sounding combination but is enormously attractive and subtle. Armstrong’s vocal bending in his playing matches Smith effortlessly; he also knows when to take centre stage and, even more importantly, when to withdraw and leave our ears to Smith (‘Sobbin’ Hearted Blues’), the interplay between the two at its best here. Railway buffs will no doubt take issue with steam engine effects in ‘Dixie Flyer Blues’.

There’s a welcome change of colour on tracks 13 and 14 with the fuller sound of a greater number of musicians comprising Fletcher Henderson’s Hot Six in the catchy and lively ‘Cake Walkin’ Babies’ and ‘Yellow Dog Blues’. Power and passion (plenty of screaming ‘Yahoos’ from her in ‘Soft Pedal Blues’), and the disc ends with another classic featuring Armstrong again, ‘I ain’t goin’ to play no second fiddle’, and neither did she. It’s all here in the unique voice of Bessie Smith, Queen of the female Blues singers.

Oh, and watch out for that ‘Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer’ when it appears on a future cd in the excellent Naxos series.

Christopher Fifield

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