Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings

Not only would we not have had Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Janis Joplin without Bessie Smith, we wouldn't have singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele.

Bessie Smith

The Complete Columbia Recordings

Label: Sony/Legacy
US Release Date: 2012-11-06
UK Release Date: 2012-11-05
Label website

Blues singer Bessie Smith was the highest-paid black entertainer in America during the 1920s. She had a slew of hit records and toured so much that she had her own railroad car. When Smith died in 1937 as a result of an automobile accident on Highway 61, she was barely scraping by. Fans, friends, and family raised money to put up a stone more than once, but her husband pocketed the money every time. Her grave went unmarked until 1970, when singer Janis Joplin (with an old friend of Smith) bought her a tombstone. The inscription reads, "The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing."

Joplin is just one of numerous performers who felt they owed a debt to Smith. The two most important American singers of the 20th century; Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, both proclaimed Smith as a pivotal influence. Yet Smith has largely been forgotten by the general public. Much of this has to do with the primitive recording techniques of Smith's time. Some of her records, which sounded bright and vibrant to audiences in the 1920s, sound scratchy and tinny to modern ears. The freshness of Smith's vocals doesn't come across when remastered on MP3 files or CDs. The early songs still sound like what they were, 78 rpm records meant to be played on Victrolas, especially those recorded before 1926.

Columbia Records has just reissued Smith's recordings on a 10-disc set complete with informative liner notes at a midline price. The music has been available since the early 1990s in five 2-CD sets. It has not been mastered again since, but this release does make all of the music available in one place with an affordable price tag.

Smith hit it big as a recording artist right from the start. Her first release in 1923, "Down Hearted Blues", sold 750,000 copies in six months. Smith sang about a man who has done her wrong and then left. "He mistreated me all the time" she complained and then sighed, "To the good Lord ev'ry night I pray / Please send my man back to me." No wonder she had the blues. "It seems like trouble is gonna follow me to my grave", she crooned. But there was something defiant in her voice. Smith sang the blues as a declaration of life. She expressed deep feelings, and the strong emotions of young, black women resonated with both black and white audiences at the time. Before the year was over, Smith recorded a total of 27 songs. They all bear the distinctive Smith belting out the lyrics while remaining vulnerable; torch songs that set the place on fire.

Many of the songs were risqué, even by today’s standards, with titles like "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine" and "If You Don't, I Know Who Will". She also recorded several of her best-known songs during 1923, most notably "’Tain't Nobody's Bizness if I Do" and "Any Woman's Blues". While many of the tunes resemble each other as they followed a commercially successful blues formula, some of them were just plain strange like "Cemetery Blues" that concerned a gal who finds love with a ghost in the graveyard because she gets happy just listening to a shroud covered corpse rattle his bones!

The 1923 recordings generally feature minimal instrumental accompaniment, mostly just a piano (frequently played by Fletcher Henderson or Clarence Williams). Smith carried the weight of the songs herself through the force of her personality. Whether she was being sultry or silly, tough or vulnerable, her voice dominates the recordings. It is a well-known truism that whatever song Smith sang instantly became recognizable as Smith's song no matter if it was recorded by someone else first.

The 26 sides she recorded during 1924 continued in the same vein, with tracks such as "Eavesdropper's Blues", "Moonshine Blues" and "Sing Sing Prison Blues". The biggest difference between her 1923 and 1924 recordings has to do with her accompaniment. Now she is frequently backed by instruments including a clarinet, trombone, violin, saxophone, trombone, and such--although not on the same session. There are generally only two side-musicians on each cut.

By 1925, Smith was joined by the great Louis Armstrong on cornet on songs like W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and Fletcher Henderson's Hot Six on Handy's "Yellow Dog Blues". The arrangements are more complex. Her style is still raw, but it is wrapped in a more sophisticated trapping. She used her voice to harmonize and conversationalist with her players rather than just belt out the material. She still puts out records at a prolific pace with 24 new sides. And she continues to sing the blues, but Smith also stretches out a bit on songs like the up-tempo "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home" and her self-penned diatribe "I've Been Mistreated and I Don't Like It".

Her stage career was going full blazes by 1926, which perhaps explains why she only recorded 14 songs that year. The recordings themselves have improved in quality. On songs like "Hard Time Blues" and "Money Blues" that feature minimal instrumental accompaniment, her voice comes off as rich and strong, where previous recordings had a harsher edge. Smith's manages to shout, trill, croon, and sing. On her well-known "Young Woman's Blues", she weeps out of loneliness and brags about the many men she's going to have in a blues voice that demands attention even as she sings, "Nobody knows me / Nobody knows what I've done.” But she's at the top of her game and a big star live and on record.

She continues along the same vein in 1927. She always had a playful side, even when the subjects of her songs were morbid. This is certainly the case on "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair" with the immortal lines, "I had my knife and went insane / And the rest you ought to know / Judge, judge, please mister judge / Send me to the 'lectric chair" to a bouncy accompaniment. Most of her songs are about how men abuse her, such as on "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "Sweet Mistreater", but she seems to find some masochistic pleasure. It seems like a nasty man is more sexually satisfying than a tame one. Unfortunately, this paralleled her love life where she coupled with men that stole and took advantage of her.

But let's face it, Smith was known as a rough, crude and sometimes violent woman. Being an independent black woman in the 1920s required being tough. That's what makes her so compelling. By 1928, her persona is well-known that when Smith sings tunes such as "Empty Bed Blues Parts 1 and 2" or "Slow and Easy Man", you know she's looking for a sexual partner, not a lover. Smith still sounds great, but her style has not really changed since earlier in the decade. Her career starts to fade despite the fact that she put out some of her best work from 1929-1931, such as the gospel "Moan, You Moaners" and the sultry hokum of "I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl".

Smith, who was known as the "Empress of the Blues", was dropped from the Columbia Record label in 1931 because her blues were out of fashion and hard times have hit the country. She recorded four more songs in 1933 for John Hammond on the Okeh label, which proved she still had enormous talent. After all, she was not even 40 years old. Two of the four songs, the barroom ballad "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer" and the foxy "Do Your Duty" are among her best remembered material.

And that's all she recorded, 160 sides for Columbia and 4 for Okeh, all included on this box set along with 5 alternate takes, a few tracks she sang for the movie St. Louis Blues, and an interview with Smith's niece Ruby. Smith died in a car crash in 1937, and there has been speculation surrounding the circumstances surrounding her death--most notably in Edward Albee's play "The Death of Bessie Smith". The songs Smith left behind will continue to be played and influence new generations of singers, not because of her technical virtuosity as much as the raw emotionality with which she imbued her material. Not only would we not have had Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Janis Joplin without Smith, we wouldn't have singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele. It's impossible to overstate Smith's influence. "The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing." indeed.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.