Welcome to Basin St. to Birdland

by mikeconklinmusic


Bessie Smith

Before there was Billie, Ella, or Sarah…there was Bessie.

Bessie Smith (1895-1937), also known as the Empress of the Blues was a rough, crude, violent woman. She was also the greatest of the classic blues singers in the history of the music. Bessie started out as a street musician in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1912, Bessie joined a traveling show as a dancer and singer. The show featured Ma Rainey, with whom Bessie developed a close friendship. Bessie, while under the tutelage of Rainey,  remained with the show for three years. She then joined the Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), a vaudeville circuit and gradually garnered some acclaim. By the early 1920s, she was one of the most popular blues singers in vaudeville. In 1923 she made her recording debut on Columbia, accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams. They recorded Gulf Coast Blues and Down Hearted Blues. The record sold more than 750,000 copies in one year.

Throughout the 1920s, Smith recorded with many of the greatest jazz musicians of that era, including Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson and and a young Louis Armstrong. Her version of St. Louis Blues with Armstrong, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993, is considered by most critics to be one of finest recordings of the 1920s.

St. Louis Blues, composed by the “Father of the Blues,” W.C. Handy. Published in 1914.

Original key: G Major

Form: AABCD; the ‘A’ and ‘C’ sections are 12-bar blues and the ‘B’ section consists of 16 measures.

Tonal Structure: All sections revolve around the key center of G major, however the ‘B’ section establishes a minor tonality.

It has some unique features:

1) It doesn’t completely follow, as noted, what we now consider the tradtional AAB 12-bar blues form.

2) The bridge section, in 16-bars, is actually written in a habanera rhythm in a minor key, popularly called The Spainish Tinge (and made famous by the inimitable Jelly Roll Morton).

  • Handy, in his 1941 autobiography Father of the Blues: An Autobiography, stated, When ‘St. Louis Blues’ was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw the lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified.

Here’s the line-up:

Personnel: Bessie Smith (vocals), backed by Louis Armstrong (cornet) and Fred Longshaw (harmonium).

Here’s the tune:

The song starts of with Armstrong and Longshaw establishing the tonal center.

Bessie sings through the chorus with Longshaw behind her and Louis playing a more active role: while Bessie is singing her part, Louis adds an obbligato part underneath. Then, once Bessie states the “call” (e.g. “I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down,” Louis adds with a response. Again, the sense of call and response permeates the history of jazz…

Quite an incredible blues tune…which is not conventionally…a blues tune!