Okeh 6893 – Bessie Smith with Buck and his Band – 1933

Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues. From Jazzmen, 1938.

The time has come once again to honor the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith.  I’ve already covered her life in some detail previously, so this post is dedicated to her famous last session.

Bessie Smith’s career flourished throughout the roaring twenties, but was hampered by the onset of the Great Depression.  Bessie made her final recordings for the Columbia label—for whom she had recorded since her debut in 1923—near the end of 1931, as the economy continued to dive.  After two years spent touring, record producer John Hammond brought her back to the studio for a session with Okeh (a subsidiary of Columbia since 1926).  For this session, Smith was paid a non-royalty sum of $37.50 (equivalent to around $690 dollars today).  With an all-star band led by pianist Buck Washington (best known as half of the popular vaudeville duo Buck and Bubbles) assembled to accompany her, the four sides cut at that session helped bring her style into the burgeoning era of swing.  That lone Okeh session, however, proved to be her last.  Smith made no further recordings between then and her fatal car accident four years later, and in that period of time faded into obscurity; by 1936 she was working as a hostess in a Philadelphia club.

Okeh 6893 was recorded on November 24, 1933 in New York City.  It was originally issued on Okeh 8949, this reissue dates to 1952.  In the band accompanying Bessie is the almost legendary lineup of Frank Newton on trumpet, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Chu Berry on tenor sax, Buck Washington on piano, Bobby Johnson on guitar, and Billy Taylor on string bass.  Benny Goodman was recording in an adjoining studio that day, and sat in for this session, but I’m not sure if he can be heard on these two sides.  The songs on both sides were composed by Wesley “Socks” Wilson.

First up, Bessie is at her all-time best on the legendary “Gimme a Pigfoot”.

Gimme a Pigfoot, recorded November 24, 1933 by Bessie Smith with Buck and his Band.

Next, she gives another great performance on the classic “Take Me For a Buggy Ride”.

Take Me For a Buggy Ride, recorded November 24, 1933 by Bessie Smith with Buck and his Band.

Updated with improved audio on October 20, 2017.

Columbia 14427-D – Bessie Smith – 1929

Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues. From Jazzmen, 1938.

Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues. From Jazzmen, 1939.

On this day, we celebrate the 122nd anniversary of the birthday of the Empress of the Blues herself, Bessie Smith.

Bessie Smith was born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, though the 1900 census reported that she was born in 1892.  Both her parents died while she was still a child, and she and Bessie and some of her siblings turned to busking to make ends meet.  Her brother left to join Moses Stoke’s troupe in 1910, and returned later to take Bessie with him.  She worked, variously, in stage shows and on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit.  In 1923, Smith was in New York, and made her first records for Columbia, with whom she would remain for the rest of her career, save for a few Columbia’s subsidiary Okeh.  She became a fixture of the Harlem Renaissance, and the highest paid black performer in the United States.  In 1929, she made her only filmed appearance in St. Louis Blues.  Hard times came with the Great Depression however, she made her final recordings on Columbia in 1931, and after a hiatus, made four more in 1933 for Okeh, accompanied by Buck Washington and his band, which proved to be her last.

In the wee hours of September 26, 1937, Bessie was riding down Highway 61—”the Blues Highway”—with her lover at the wheel, when his Packard collided with a slow-moving truck ahead.  Bessie was mortally wounded.  The first to arrive at the scene was one Dr. Smith who dressed Bessie’s wounds while his fishing buddy called for an ambulance.  After some time passed with no ambulance in sight, the doctor decided to move Bessie in his own car, when another car came screaming down the road and plowed into Bessie’s Packard, which bounced off Dr. Smith’s car and landed in the ditch off the side of the road.  Finally, two ambulances arrived, one from the white hospital, and another from the black hospital.  Bessie Smith was taken to the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where her badly injured right arm was amputated, but she never regained consciousness, and died that morning.  (Contrary to rumors propagated by John Hammond, she did not die as a result of being brought to an all-white hospital, as she was not taken to an all-white hospital.)

Columbia 14427-D was recorded May 8, 1929 in New York City by Bessie Smith.  She is accompanied on piano by Clarence Williams and on guitar by Eddie Lang.  The DAHR shows takes “2” and “3” were issued on both sides, these are “3” and “2”, respectively.  Both sides are more than a bit on the raunchy side, so if you’re a prude, you may want to turn back here.

On the first side of this disc, Bessie sings “I’m Wild About That Thing”, probably one of her more famous tunes.

I'm Wild About That Thing

I’m Wild About That Thing, recorded May 8, 1929 by Bessie Smith.

On the reverse, Smith sings the equally racy “You’ve Got to Give Me Some”.

You've Got to Give Me Some

You’ve Got to Give Me Some, recorded May 8, 1929 by Bessie Smith.

Columbia 13001-D – Bessie Smith – 1923

I often notice that there’s no balance between the jazz and the and the blues (and country) that’s posted here, unfortunately the category for blues tunes on this site is terribly barren and bereft.  What better way to remedy that than with the aid of the Empress of the Blues herself, Madam Bessie Smith.  Here Bessie sings two fine songs on one of Columbia’s first issues in their series dedicated to “race records”, pressed with their beautiful “flags” label design.

Columbia 13001-D was recorded September 26 and October 10, 1923 in New York City and was the second issue in Columbia’s first Race series which ran only from 13000-D to 13007-D in 1923 and was soon abandoned in favor of their more successful 14000-D series.  These sides are two of Bessie’s earlier sides, her twenty-fifth and thirtieth to be precise, and her first in Columbia’s specifically designated “race” series.

First, Bessie moans her way through Sid Laney’s “Cemetery Blues”, backed by Jimmy Jones on piano, and recorded on the September 26 date.  Sid Laney was apparently a pseudonym used by prolific piano roll player J. Lawrence Cook.  Does that mean this piece was written by Cook, or was there a real Laney?

Cemetery Blues

Cemetery Blues, recorded September 26, 1923 by Bessie Smith.

On the flip, Bessie sings Lovie Austin’s “Any Woman’s Blues”, accompanied on piano by the great Fletcher Henderson, recorded on the October 10 date.

Any Woman's Blues

Any Woman’s Blues, recorded October 10, 1923 by Bessie Smith.