Friday, January 15, 2010

January 15: Bessie Smith, "St. Louis Blues"

Artist: Bessie Smith
Song: "St. Louis Blues"
Album: 78 RPM single/any "best of" collection
Year: 1925

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In 1914, a man named William Christopher Handy published one of his many songs, and this song, simply titled "St. Louis Blues" did not at first seem like anything all that different from his other compositions. A simple twelve bar blues song, "St. Louis Blues" would go on to become the most recorded song of the pre-rock era, and compositions like this is what earned Handy the title "Father Of The Blues." Yet the fact of the matter is, as great as the song was, without the right vocalist, it surely would not have reached such an unparalleled level of success. Though the song has been covered over the years by everyone from Glenn Miller to Art Tatum to Stevie Wonder, it is the earlier renditions of "St. Louis Blues" that remain the most authentic and timeless. It is not surprising that one of the most stunning and lasting renditions of "St. Louis Blues" was recorded only eleven years after it first appeared, and this version was sung by the woman who had already earned the title "Empress Of The Blues:" Bessie Smith. Having learned and honed her craft from none other than Ma Rainey in the early days of vaudeville, Smith soon surpassed her teacher, and there are truly few singers who had as much impact on the shape and sound of jazz singing as that of Smith. With one of the most powerful voices in history, as well as an amazing presence both live and on records, it is little surprise that her take on "St. Louis Blues" has become so legendary. Originally released as a 78 in 1925, this version of "St. Louis Blues" remains the definitive recording of the song nearly a century later.

The original 78 recording (linked above) has a wonderfully authentic sound, as the slight crackle and somewhat muffled sound perfectly captures the sound of the time, and it is one of the key aspects to the songs' intrigue. Though later re-releases have "cleaned up" this sound, the truth of the matter is, Bessie Smith's take on "St. Louis Blues" is certainly better left untouched. Along with this wonderful atmosphere, the 1925 recording also contains an absolutely beautiful trumpet line that runs the entire length of the song. Bringing as much soul and emotion as Smith's singing, the trumpet part on this recording is being performed by none other than fellow music icon, Louis Armstrong. To have such a legendary duo on the same song would surely have been enough to make the recording a hit, but the way in which the two perform takes the song to an entirely new level, and makes this version of "St. Louis Blues" nothing short of iconic. Armstrong perfectly captures the mood of the song, as he plays a slow, sorrowful progression, giving the song an almost funeral-like tone. This slower take on the song immediately separated it from a majority of previous recordings, as the song had mostly been performed as a more fast paced, almost tango-like tempo. Yet, the musical brilliance of Armstrong that is on display here would set the standard for this "new" take on the song, and his performance must be experienced firsthand to be properly appreciated.

Armstrong's superb trumpet playing on "St. Louis Blues" is nothing short of perfect, and the way in which his playing weaves in and around the equally stunning voice of Bessie Smith is what truly makes this song so special. Without question, Bessie Smith possessed one of the most amazing voices in the history of music, and she rarely sounded as good as she did on this recording. When one looks at the overall history of blues music, Smith stands out immediately as she was the first of the female blues singers to gain popularity with her studio recordings, and she largely set the standard for nearly all performers who followed after. It is the power and emotion of her voice that is so uncanny, and in the case of "St. Louis Blues," she is able to rise above the somewhat crude recording equipment and create a track that has truly stood the test of time. On "St. Louis Blues," Smith takes an almost leisurely, yet unquestionably soulful vocal line, and her steady, mid-range voice plays brilliantly against Armstrong's trumpet work. Smith's vocals are truly pristine throughout the entire song, building to her growling and belting the songs' final verse, "...I've got them St. Louis blues, just as blue as I can be..." While there are literally countless renditions of "St. Louis Blues" from the last century, there are none that are as powerful and moving as the version that was done in 1925, and its perseverance is largely due to the extraordinary vocal performance from Bessie Smith.

History has proved time and time again that truly great recordings will both overcome the technology of the time, as well as persevere through any changes in the overall musical taste of the general public. Standing as strong proof of this idea, nearly one hundred years later, the recording of "St. Louis Blues" by Bessie Smith stands as one of the most essential and stunning vocal performances in history. With Smith's voice playing in amazing fashion alongside a brilliant trumpet performance from Louis Armstrong, there is no doubt that this recording represents a truly special moment in music history. The two both trade and mix their sound which results in a recording that can easily be described as a "perfect" musical performance from everyone involved. In many ways, the recording imperfections give this rendition the final "something" that it needs to become truly iconic, as everything about this version of "St. Louis Blues" represents all there is to love about honest, unaltered musical perfection. Though by this point, both Smith and Armstrong had solidified their names as top-notch performers of their era, one cannot imagine their musical catalog without this stunning addition. While "St. Louis Blues" is factually one of the three most recorded songs in music history, there is simply no other version that even comes close to the musical perfection and beautiful performance that one finds on the 1925 version that featured the wonderful trumpet of Louis Armstrong and the unsurpassed vocal work of the late, great Bessie Smith.

1 comment:

Yvonne McCalla Sobers said...

Great post, quite apart from my being a recent fan of Bessie Smith. She is truly iconic.

Incidentally, this week I have featured Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith on blog pages focused on Women's History Month.