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.
“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 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.
“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.