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Long before I got into Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday – and after I’d thrilled to the intensity of Janis Joplin, one who influenced all of them could give me shivers within the first few bars of every song… shivers that were white-hot for the duration of every song. She could keep me with her through song after song of whatever anthology I was spinning. That singer is Bessie Smith; a barrelhouse-blues chanteuse who should be in the dictionary next to the word “fierce.” Full-bodied, brimming with feeling, and clear as a bell are all descriptors that fit the vocalist, who was active in the 1920s and ‘30s. The “Empress of the Blues” died 75 years ago, as a result of injuries incurred in a car accident when she was 43.
A new 10-CD boxed set, Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings, should be welcomed by Smith completists while offering an ample fount of material to new converts. Included are alternate takes, family interview segments, and tracks from Smith’s lone film performance in St. Louis Blues (1929). The box also houses rare photos and a new essay by blues scholar Ken Romanowski. Among the musicians who made the brilliant accompaniment sound effortless were trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Joe Smith, pianists James P. Johnson and Fletcher Henderson, trombonists Jack Teagarden and Charlie Green, and clarinetist Benny Goodman
Included in this new collection, much of which wasn’t previously available on CD, is one of my all-time Bessie faves, “Gimme a Pigfoot”:
Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings is out now. You can find out more about it here.
by Mary Leary