Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide by Review Date: 2012-08-17


Bessie Smith: The Essential Bessie Smith (Columbia, 1997) Smith was the best-selling and best-recorded artist of so-called classic blues. She got top sidemen from her royalty-skimming a&r boss Clarence Williams--Armstrong, Hawkins, Henderson, Goodman, Teagarden--and A-shelf material by the standards of her market. But musically, she's a bigger puzzle than is admitted, and although there may be a better compilation out there, I'll settle for this even though it omits, among other standouts I'm sure, the class-conscious "Washwoman Blues," the guitar-featuring "Mean Old Bedbug Blues," the horncatting "Empty Bed Blues," and the trifling "It Makes My Love Come Down." Records certainly spread her fame with the Southern-identified black audience she proudly entertained. But they didn't come near to capturing the live charisma of a funny lady with a big ego and a bigger heart who knew how to shake her big bones. Her singing was more about shading microtones than delivering a tune or powering a groove--she loved medium tempos and she's sometimes, sorry, too subtle. So while blues mavens wish she would sing nothing but, I say the Tin Pan Alley chestnut "After You've Gone" is a standout here, and find she benefits in general from the cheap marginal distinction of pop material right down to "It Makes My Love Come Down," a number otherwise uncelebrated in Bessie Smith scholarship--unlike "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," "Backwater Blues," "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness," "Aggravatin' Papa," "Gimme a Pigfoot," and whatever else you justifiably believe demolishes such quibbles. A-

Men Are Like Streetcars . . . Women Blues Singers 1928-1969 (MCA, 1999) All but seven of these 46 choices are from the Decca, Chess, and Duke catalogs MCA controls, and that's a shame. No Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, OK--they cut albums' worth of classics on their own. But the absent Lil Green always deserves a plug and, come on, Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" is the archetypal seminal one-shot--a debut single she never equalled that sparked every other side collected here. Still, sometimes a tasty mouthful is all these singers had in them (see my unpublished monograph Big Mama Thornton: Who Owes Who?), and on the first disc especially, folkie lifer Mary Katherine Aldin's picks rarely lag. Maybe they'll inspire you to seek out more Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivey, and Rosetta Tharpe, or maybe you'll just say thank-you-ma'am to the lost sin songs of Georgia White, Blue Lu Barker, Rosetta Howard. Second disc is easier to lose track of, so let me direct your attention to the Margie Day feature. Aldin seems a little embarrassed by this "quirky ditty." Me, my day was made by a song that begins "Take out you false teeth daddy, your mommy wants to scratch your gums." And with such lip-smacking gusto, too. A-

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