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Lady Sings the Blues

Lady Sings the Blues

Most of the great blues musicians over the years have been men, but most of the best blues vocalists were women, starting way back with the greatest of them all, Bessie Smith.

bessie“Empty Bed Blues” Sure, Bessie had contemporaries with blues-singing skills—Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, and a host of other ladies with the surname Smith. But Bessie Smith was the real deal, and her big, unadorned voice transcends time in song after song: “Downhearted Blues” (her first hit), “St. Louis Blues,” “Taint Nobody’s Business if I Do,” “Careless Love,” “Empty Bed Blues.” Classics all, never topped. “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington, though, did record a quite enjoyable tribute album, Dinah Sings Bessie Smith, in 1958. Bessie died in a car wreck. The story that she died after being refused treatment at a white hospital has been debunked by eyewitnesses; however, it was the South in the ‘30s, so it is true that she had to be picked up by a black ambulance driver and taken to a blacks-only hospital, where she died from loss of blood.

lady“Lady Sings the Blues” The lady who had a song, an album, and an autobiography named Lady Sings the Blues (and about whom a movie of that name was made) was not primarily a blues singer. Billy Holiday was best known as an interpreter of pop standards, a vocalist of limited range and power but immeasurable depth and feeling. She turned pop schlock into pleasant, solid recordings, and she turned well-crafted songs into art. But she also did a fine job on blues numbers, including her own “Fine and Mellow.” A fifties television performance of this song has been called the greatest jazz performance on video. It is an unparalleled lineup: her soulmate Lester Young, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, and other greats take turns on solos that answer Lady Day’s coolly-delivered verses.

cat“Back o’ Town Blues” Catherine Russell is one of my very favorite singers recording today. Her five albums are consistently excellent, the best example of a modern singer getting a retro sound but in a genuine way. Her songs, old and new, all sound timeless. The arrangements and instrumentation get an age-old feel but without any creakiness, and without being derivative. And her voice, on jazz, pop, R&B, and blues numbers, adds to the timelessness.She has her roots: Her father, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s musical director for years. Luis and Louis wrote “Back o’ Town Blues” together; Catherine covers it on her 2006 debut album Cat. She does her father’s “Lucille” beautifully on her Bring It Back LP from 2014. Other blues numbers Ms. Russell does proud include “Under the Spell of the Blues,” “Sad Lover Blues,” and “My Old Daddy’s Got a Brand New Way to Love,” which has more than a little Bessie Smith in it.

“Write Me a Few of Your Lines” Another fine blues singer—and guitarist—is Bonnie Raitt. (She’s made Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers and 100 Greatest Guitarists lists.) Her father was Broadway leading man John Raitt, who starred in the original Carousel, Oklahoma!, and other classics. Bonnie’s been at it for more than four decades, always on the fringes of commercial success. Her earliest albums, before her first hits, are my favorites, with plenty of fine bottleneck guitar work and vocals that would’ve made her heroine Sippie Wallace proud. My favorite is her take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Write Me a Few of Your Lines.”


“Blues for Mama” Nina Simone could do it all, from Broadway hits to Beatles and Dylan covers, from R&B and jazz to early folk. But she seemed most at home with the blues. After all, her blues feel and inflections show up in the Broadway and the Beatles—and she makes them fit, makes the songs her own. I listen to Ms. Simone intermittently, when the mood hits. But I have so many choices, with more than twenty of her records in my collection, that deciding on one can be overwhelming. I probably most often go to Nina Sings the Blues, which includes “Blues for Mama,” or to her excellent blues-dominated Forbidden Fruit album. Nina Simone was “difficult,” as they say. As I read biographies and saw documentaries about her, I imagined that it would’ve been difficult to have been a friend or associate of hers. She could be blunt, self-righteous, and headstrong. But she put that in the music, and that’s why it can be so powerful—particularly her blues performances. A new Simone documentary debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and the biopic that controversially stars Zoe Saldana as Simone is set to debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I’m eager to see both of them.


“Come on in My Kitchen” Like Simone, Cassandra Wilson feels at home in many styles of music, including blues. Wilson gets way into the “real folk blues”—covering Son House, Elmore James, and other old-time Delta bluesmen. She transforms them into something personal, but doesn’t lose one bit of the classic blues feeling of these songs. She interprets two Robert Johnson songs—“Hellhound on My Trail” and “Come on in My Kitchen”—on her 1993 album Blue Light ‘til Dawn. Wilson’s newest album, Coming Forth By Day, is a tribute to Billie Holiday, who was an inspiration to her.

“Move Over” I must mention Janis Joplin, the most lauded and successful modern-era blues singer. I am not a huge fan, but there are several of her recordings I come back to from time to time, including “Down On Me,” “Cry Baby,” and my favorite, “Move Over.”An interesting side note: I was fortunate to have the opportunity a few years back to pore over the papers of the man who was Chief of Security at UT-Austin during the time of the Charles Whitman tower sniper incident (1966). In addition to some eerie first-hand accounts of that crime, there were numerous reports from undercover officers spying on campus hippie types. A name that appears on troublemaker lists frequently, as a drug supplier and user, is none other than Janis Joplin.

Honorable Mention: Susan Tedeschi, alone or with the Tedeschi-Trucks Band she fronts with guitarist Derek Trucks, is an exceptional blues singer. Plus, it’s kinda neat to have a hubby-and-wife blues-band team. And a little more solid than Jimmy Reed having his wife occasionally sing randomly behind him on recordings. Trucks (whose uncle Butch was the original drummer for The Allman Brothers Band) and Tedeschi won a Best Blues Album Grammy for their 2011 debut, Revelator.

It’s the Talk of the Town

It’s the Talk of the Town

People will talk. Hurtful, suspicious language has overtaken not only social media, but the nightly news. What does one do when the gossipers gather? Ignore ‘em! Billie Holiday has the most widely known version of “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” a classic “follow the beat of your own drum” number. It was written by Porter Grainger, Clarence Williams, and Graham Prince, and seems made to order for Billie.



Helen Humes, though, does a masterful job with the song. You believe her when she sings, “If I give him my last nickel and I know it’ll leave me in a pickle, ‘tain’t nobody’s business if I do.” Jazz editor/writer Nat Hentoff writes, “I thought Billie Holiday had a patent on “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” but Helen stakes a penetrating, tangy claim.” Hentoff goes on to say that, after the death of Lady Day, “no other female jazz singer has the wholeness and consistency of jazz beat that Helen possesses.” Take out female: she’s right at the top of all vocalists.



Rumours was one of the most commercially successful albums of all time, and its success is likely due to the underlying emotional conflict of its creators. Fleetwood Mac gave the album that name because so many interpersonal situations had arisen following the success of their previous album, Fleetwood Mac. “The Chain, “credited to all of the group members, was the centerpiece. The McVies, John and Christine, got a divorce after eight years of marriage. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who had revolutionized Fleetwood Mac when they joined the group as a musical and romantic couple, also began squabbling. Mick Fleetwood had relationship problems of his own. Public and press also tossed around some of their own gossip, mostly imagined. Imagine if Fleetwood Mac had recorded Rumours not in 1976 but in the era of social media!

Mick & Stevie

Mick & Stevie

Band-member relationship issues can make for creative explosions. Just look at The Partridge Family. (Or maybe The Beatles…)

And speaking of Shirley Jones, it took Meredith Willson eight years to finish his magnum opus, The Music Man, which hit Broadway in 1957. Willson, a small-town Iowa guy, wanted to bring small-town Iowa to the stage, and he did it well. I was a big fan of the 1962 movie when I was a kid. I mean, there was little Opie lisping, “Oh, the Wellth Fargo wagon ith a-comin’ down the thtreet.” And then Paul McCartney warbled “Till There Was You” on Meet the Beatles. Lotsa culture cred.

Shirley & Robert

Shirley & Robert

A nice bit of Music Man business was the gaggle of gossips singing “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” out in the street, with the men’s club singing “Goodnight, Ladies” as counterpoint. My friends and I used to hyperventilate seeing who could sing it the fastest: “Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little, cheep, cheep, cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more.” Cheep thrills. “Goodnight, Ladies” was much easier.

“It’s the Talk of the Town” is a work of art, but it took me quite a while to come to that conclusion. It was created in 1933 by three guys not associated with high art. The composer, Jerry Livingston, is remembered for his songs for Disney’s Cinderella, including “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” The co-lyricists, Al J. Neiburg and Marty Symes, are barely remembered at all. Neiburg’s one other hit was “Confessin’,” made popular by Louis Armstrong. Symes wrote a couple of standards, “There Is No Greater Love” and “I Have But One Heart.”

I’d heard various versions of “It’s the Talk of the Town” over the years and thought it was a nice song, but nothing special. Despite the song’s pretty melody, the many instrumental versions of it are incomplete and never made an impression on me. It’s not difficult for an accomplished singer to put across a solid, emotional song like this one. Dean Martin, Sam Cooke, Brenda Lee, and even Fats Domino have done passable versions. Connee Boswell did a nice rendition, sans Sisters, way back in ’33, the year the song was written. But they all are a bit on the jaunty side and their delivery is a bit pat; the proper tone isn’t set.

The lyrics of Neiburg and Symes, who got it just right with this one, beg for unrestrained emotion. It’s a devastating breakup song: “I can’t show my face / Can’t go anyplace / People stop and stare / It’s so hard to bear / Everybody knows you left me / It’s the talk of the town.” The singer goes on to lament the impossible situation: “We sent out invitations to friends and relations / Announcing our wedding day / Friends and our relations gave congratulations / How can you face them? What can you say?”


The song needs the lyrics, and their utter despair should not be compromised. It was Annette Hanshaw, in 1933, who came the closest to capturing the desperation of the words, but even her recording sounds a bit rushed and hopeful. It was more than seventy years later, when Maude Maggart recorded the song (on her album With Sweet Despair, appropriately enough), that the combination of Maude and her pianist—and Al & Marty & Jerry—makes art of the most wonderfully devastating kind. It took seventy-two years, but “It’s the Talk of the Town” finally became a true work of art.

Shirley Eikhard had a nice idea with her song “Something to Talk About,” and Bonnie Raitt did a nice job of it in 1991. Everyone’s going on and on about something they think is happening, so “Let’s give them something to talk about.”

I got to see Bonnie Raitt on one of her first tours, front row-center, because of the girl I was dating. She and her best friend were most likely the two biggest Bonnie Raitt fans in all of Austin, and scooped up tickets at the first possible moment. I was not a rabid Raitt fan, but liked her well enough, and she did a fine show. More memorably for me, her opener was Tom Waits, just off his first album, Closing Time. I’d never heard of him, and it took a little bit of time to accept this disheveled guy in the cheap black suit and skinny tie, cigarette in crooked-back fingers, the other hand’s fingers snapping as he did a hipster rap. He did play one number I recognized, his song “Ol’ ’55,” which The Eagles had just recorded.

During Bonnie’s set, Tom sat on the floor in the wings, just offstage, eating cold fried chicken out of a bucket. I wonder if Tom and Bonnie were…Nah, don’t want to start anything.

Honorable Mention: As a kid, I loved it whenever Joe Jones’ “You Talk Too Much” came on the radio. I still smile when I think of the song.

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