The Complete Columbia Recordings
Among blues royalty, Bessie Smith was known as the Empress and Dinah Washington the Queen. But their titles should have been reversed, since Smith laid the groundwork not just for Washington but for dozens of blues, jazz and soul singers, from Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday through Joe Williams, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. (Holiday’s recording career began, in the same studio with the same sidemen, three days after Smith’s ended.) To call her influence seismic is an understatement.
In her heyday throughout the 1920s, she was the most beloved—and highest paid—black artist in America, comparable in popularity to Sinatra, Elvis or Michael Jackson. And her pivotal importance extends well beyond the 12-bar blues that were her specialty. The recording industry was in its infancy when Smith commenced making records (her work actually pre-dates electric recording by a couple of years), and her mastery at the microphone forever altered popular singing, establishing a more intimate sound that Bing Crosby, Sinatra and Holiday perfected. And she expanded the entire industry, opening up a lucrative market among black Americans. She might have, as has been widely posited, even single-handedly saved her label, the then-fledgling Columbia, from bankruptcy.
Remarkably, Smith, who died at age 43 as the result of injuries suffered from a car accident in 1937, accomplished all of this in less than a decade. Between 1923 and 1931, she recorded 156 sides for Columbia. All were, together with four tracks done for the Columbia subsidiary OKeh under the direction of John Hammond in 1933, assembled in a series of five double-disc sets in the 1990s. This new 10-disc box is simply a compact (and more affordable) repackaging of those earlier releases, complete with the same bonus materials: soundtrack selections from Smith’s sole film appearance, playing herself in the 1929 short St. Louis Blues, a handful of alternate takes and a multi-part 72-minute interview between Smith biographer Chris Albertson and Smith’s niece Ruby.
Smith was already a seasoned performer when, accompanied solely by her mentor and early champion, pianist and composer Clarence Williams, she first entered the studio in February of ’23, laying down the classic “Down-Hearted Blues.” Honed from years on the road (several in the company of mentor Ma Rainey), the ebony sound and strident assurance that would define all her work was fully formed. Rarely did she require more than a pianist for support, occasionally supplemented by cornet, trombone, sax and/or guitar, and several giants—Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins and, most famously, Louis Armstrong, with whom she cut nine sides in 1925, including their legendary rendition of “St. Louis Blues”—numbered among her musical partners. Once in a while, a more pop-oriented tune like “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” would creep into her repertoire, but the blues was her idiom, and she covered all facets—sad, saucy and funny—with inimitable élan.
With the onset of the Great Depression, the blues (and Smith along with them) suffered a sharp decline in popularity. But that 1933 session with Hammond, featuring Jack Teagarden and Chu Berry, provides a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been, suggesting that Smith might easily have achieved a major comeback and new vigor as a swing singer if her life hadn’t been cut so tragically short.