Bessie Smith 1894 - 1937
The use of the microphone is now so totally ubiquitous that it is hard to imagine what it was like to sing without one. Nobody these days wants a popular singer to sound operatic, even if they have great volume like Celine Dion or Christina Aguilera. Before the mid 1920's every singing performer had to let it rip. It took physical strength and usually body size. God knows how tiny Edith Piaf sang on the streets of Paris.
Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was tall and strong. She roared her way through the twenties into the thirties, her voice roughening somewhat, as much from hard living and drinking as from use. Her voice stayed within a fairly narrow range, free from embellishments or fussy escape routes. Even played at low volume, the listener gets the sense of a great power that might whip ones hair back if too close. In 1925 she recorded St. Louis Blues, one year before Bing Crosby started to sing and record with a microphone, changing singing styles forever.
It is likely that Smith made this recording acoustically, meaning that everyone had to gather round a large shared horn. Balancing the volume was not high tech - the term 'put a sock in it' came from this practice. Let's hope they were clean. The trumpet was a favoured instrument for this style of recording as it could cut across other sounds, and to this records glory it has Louis Armstrong along, replying to and supporting Smith's ripe voice.
An earlier version, made by composer W.C.Handy in 1922, is taken at a ragtime gallop and has no singer. It starts with what we have come to see as the middle section, a tango ...not unusual in the south at the turn of the 20th century. But Smith's version is a masterwork of interpretation. Demandingly slow, it is sheer heartache. Starting with a single chord played on, of all things, a harmonium, along with Armstrong's call to arms, it is the start of a sacred performance. She sets the time, pulling both accompanists back to join her intent. Poor old Fred Longshaw must have had kittens as he tried to keep his asthmatic harmonium in time.
I've always believed that playing very slowly sorts out the men from the boys. Make a mistake? We all hear it. Speed up? We all feel it. On this recording there are no musical mistakes: the speed increase is so fractional it will only accelerate your heartbeat by a pulse, and as Smith sings...."the man I love, wouldn't go nowhere, No Wheeere" you will rise to meet her. After nearly a century. And you hardly notice that this was the tango section, so subtle is the rhythm. Armstrong is in creative heaven, playing the phrases that would become the bedrock of jazz improvisation.
Smith is monumental in performance in a way that no amplified singer could ever be.
She died in a rather messy car accident, and her grave was not marked until Janis Joplin helped pay for a stone in 1970.