Queen of the Blues Vol 2: the Later Years 1926-1933 Box set
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By 1926, Bessie Smith was the biggest female African American star. Others, like Ethel Waters and Ma Rainey had big followings, but their appeal was less wide - Waters went down better in the north, while Ma Rainey's power base was in the south. For the moment, Bessie's appeal was national. For most black artists at the time, Bessie included, records were a way of promoting their live shows. Income was secondary - they were routinely cheated out of royalty payments. As well as being a blues singer, Bessie starred in revue. Porter Grainger wrote 'Mississippi Days' as a vehicle for Bessie. Empty Bed Blues featured in the show and its two parts were issued as flipsides of the same disc. A hit on stage, it was a hit on record. Bessie took 'Mississippi Days' on a barnstorming tour, reportedly reviving the fortunes of the black theatre circuit. Two further Bessie Smith shows were commissioned. 'Steamboat Days' opened in Detroit in October 1928. A short but successful New York run followed. The second show closed after five months. Bessie then opened in a show called 'Pansy'. It flopped. Undaunted, she made a movie, 'St Louis Blues' whose thin story was a pretext for music-making. The sound track's choral segment is particularly uplifting and unlike anything else Bessie recorded. On her last recording session for OKeh. Bessie shows little sign of a two year absence - her drive is undiminished. All the sidemen seem to be straining to make the occasion special. Early 1934, she was on an all-star bill at New York's Apollo. 1935 wasn't too bad. In February, she substituted for Louis Armstrong at the Apollo. She can't have done badly, because she was back at least twice more. In February 1937, a three week booking in Philly was extended several times and there was talk of recordings. She responded to an invitation to play some southern dates. The first venue was in Memphis. As expected, she wowed the city. Her next date was in Clarksdale. She never made it.
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Top Customer Reviews
"Bessie Smith -- Empress of the Blues Volume 2 -- 1926 -- 1933," presented in a very affordable 4 -- disc box set, continues to uphold the standard set by John Davies. The sound quality of these CDs easily surpasses the Columbia/Legacy sets that were first issued in the early 1990s. Although Chris Albertson's excellent notes to that earlier set remain unequaled, for pure sound you cannot do better than the JSP Bessie Smith boxes. I have both the Columbia and the JSP sets, and listening to these new JSP boxes is like hearing Bessie Smith for the first time.
As most readers will know, Bessie Smith was unquestionably the greatest blues singer of her day, and is arguably the greatest of all-time. When artists as diverse as Billie holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Janis Joplin (who before her own death helped pay for a headstone for Bessie's grave) cite Smith as inspiring their own remarkable careers, you know that this is a voice that deserves to be listened to closely and often. Those who know her work can cite dozens of classic recordings made in the 1920s and early 30s, including "St. Louis Blues," "Empty Bed Blues," "After You've Gone," "Send Me to the Electric Chair," and "Nobody Knows You When You're down and Out."
Bessie Smith's voice has always commanded attention. It is deep, strong, and above all heartfelt. But the JSP boxes for the first time clearly reveal the nuance, shading, and superb phrasing that were often obscured in previous reissues. Perhaps just as important, these new sets bring to life the contributions of the many famous jazz and blues musicians who accompanied Bessie throughout her career. For the first time we hear the full range of sound produced by such outstanding artists as pianist James P. Johnson, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, clarinetist Buster Bailey, and trombonist Charlie Green, to name but a few. It is not the sound of digital or analog tape recordings, but it is probably the best that we will have for many years. That in itself is a notable contribution to the history of recorded American music.
The price is unbeatable. For under $30 you can have the best available set of the 90 recordings Smith made between 1926 and her last side in 1933. She was still in fine voice at the end of her recording career, even if the Depression and the fading interest in blues had reduced the sales of her records dramatically. In fact, she was ready to return to recording and was negotiating an appearance in the first Carnegie Hall "Spirituals to Swing" concert organized by John Hammond when she was killed in an automobile accident in 1937.
Jazz and blues enthusiasts, and music lovers generally, have cause for celebration with the issuance of this Volume II set by JSP. It is an essential and loving presentation of a woman who, over 60 years after her death, continues to teach us about the "soul" that is the foundation of all great music.
Another customer reviewer here has warned, apparently on reliable information, that the digital transfers used to create Empress Of The Blues Volume 2: 1926-1933 (CD A, 1926-1928) were stolen from the UK label Frog Records' set of 8 volumes (of which Complete Recordings, Volume 5 comprises one installment).
I am a classical musician, and my ears are trained to detect subtle differences from the perspective of a performer and recording artist. Even though I don't always know the technology or techniques used in editing and mixing (in the case of new recordings) or with transfers and noise reduction (with old or archival recordings), I very much appreciate the effort engineers put into their work when it is of a high quality. I can hear it.
Yes, there is a difference between Empress Of The Blues Volume 2: 1926-1933 (CD A, 1926-1928) and Complete Recordings, Volume 5, and I prefer the latter.
Both are huge improvements over those godawful Columbia transfers (Bessie Smith Collection, Columbia Jazz Masterpieces, Columbia, CD, 1989), which a friend loaned me and which got me hooked on Bessie Smith. Those recordings made her sound like she was singing through a metallic tube. Instead, the Frog Records transfers give you the sense that she is in a room with four walls, a ceiling and a floor and with the air in between all resonating. The JSP version does sound like there has been additional noise reduction, but in my opinion this is not an improvement over Frog UK.
And as an artist who has had my work sold on the open market without compensation to me by unscrupulous recording companies and others, over the years, I feel it is important that, as a consumer, I make the extra effort to reward one of the good guys. If the story can be believed, Frog UK is the way to go. So skip this one from JSP.