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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.

You’re the Devil in Disguise

You’re the Devil in Disguise

“Christine’s Tune” was one of my favorite tracks on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ album The Gilded Palace of Sin. I always called the song “Devil in Disguise.” It was a great one to get a tight, three-part harmony on, inserting steel guitar-style suspended notes wherever appropriate. Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman had something happening on that album that they didn’t quite hit again, together or separately. Of course, they’d done some wonderful things on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo by that time.


Devilish musicians, in their Nudie suits


Christine was the devil in disguise—“You can see it in her eyes.” That song was followed on the album by the album’s centerpiece, “Sin City,” which just might have a temptress or two in it. Then we get a pair of Dan Penn-penned classics on the theme of fidelity. The first, “Do Right Woman” (which, of course, Aretha Franklin had recorded magnificently), warns that if a man doesn’t want his woman to turn evil, he’d better control himself and be a “do right, all night man.” But darned if he doesn’t, in the very next song, go meetin’ a lady-friend illicitly at “The Dark End of the Street.” By the end of this album, we’re wondering whether Christine really was all that bad, and thinking it’s maybe Chris and Graham and company who are a bit on the devilish side.

Elvis recorded a song a decade earlier called “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise.” It got to #3 in ’63. My friend The Tumblebug does a great version of it, even without the jumpsuit and karate moves.


Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” is one of the all-time best songs about the effects of a devil woman on a weak-willed man. There are some, most notably Jerry Lee himself, who think that Jerry Lee Lewis was the greatest entertainer of them all. I’d put him quite a ways down my list, but his life has inspired two of the best music biographies ever written. Both necessarily spend quite a bit of time on The Killer’s tussles with temptation and sin, in defiance of his Bible-quoting cousin Jimmy Swaggart. Rolling Stone called Nick Tosches’ Hellfire, from 1982, the greatest rock & roll bio ever, and it is indeed quite a romp. So why do we need another one? Well, the brand-new Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, gives you Lewis’s own commentary on his life as he looks back, and it gives you one of the best writers going, Rick Bragg, to usher him through it.

jerry lee

The great Dinah Washington gave it her raw and dangerous all on her second hit, “Evil Gal Blues,” in 1944. She playfully sings, “If you tell me good mornin’, I’m gon’ tell you that’s a lie.” But then she warns any potential suitors: “I’ll empty your pockets and fill you with misery, yes I will!” She covered quite a few raucous, tough-mama songs, including an album of man-taunting blues numbers Bessie Smith made famous, but let’s say she was a strong-willed gal, and not an evil gal. She burned out early, in 1963 at the age of 39—and in that short life married seven times.

Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington

Dinah, an R&B trailblazer with a string of hits from the ‘40s to the ‘60s, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, in acknowledgment of her big influence on the development of rock music. Will Friedwald writes that she “invests pop standards with a blues feeling, sings the blues with a jazz-based improvisational outlook, and can bring both a jazz and blues feeling into the most tepid of pop contexts.” My kind of singer!

There were many great movie she-devils. In 1938, Bette Davis starred in Jezebel (named for the Biblical temptress), as a woman who scandalously wears a red dress to a society ball, humiliating her beau (Henry Fonda) and driving him away. Frankie Laine had a huge hit in 1951 with a “Jezebel.” He sings that “If ever the Devil was born without a pair of horns” it was she.

Ray Charles

Ray Charles

Jennifer Jones had a comeback in the title role of the1952 movie Ruby Gentry, the story of a poor-white-trash gal who gets entangled with two very different men and, mostly unintentionally, brings them both to bad ends. Karl Malden is the good-and-wealthy fellow who marries her; Charlton Heston is the younger, wilder guy Ruby really longs for. The theme song, with music by Heinz Roemheld, was an instrumental hit by six different artists in 1953. With lyrics added by Mitchell Parish, it became a Billboard pop hit for the great Ray Charles in 1960, and no one’s done it better. You really believe Ray when he sings about Ruby, who’s like a dream but also like a song—she doesn’t always “know right from wrong”—and like a flame. “And though I should beware, still I don’t care.” He’s hooked on that bad Ruby Gentry. “Ruby” was a favorite at the acoustic jam I long attended, sung by a quartet of us in four-part harmony.

One more devil woman of cinema was Ruby Carter, played by Mae West in the 1934 movie The Belle of the Nineties. The song “Troubled Waters,” written by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston, comes from that movie. Mae sang it, backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and then Duke’s own vocalist Ivie Anderson delivered the lament on disc. “They say I’m one of the devil’s daughters / They look at me with scorn / I’ll never hear that horn / I’ll be underneath the water judgment morning.” Oh, it’s bad! Ivie makes you feel she’s being unjustly maligned, just as Catherine Russell, daughter of bandleader Luis Russell, does on her excellent, pathos-wringing version recorded 75 years later. Its eerie melodrama still has a powerful effect.

c russell

Honorable Mentions: There are quite a few rock-era hits involving an “Evil Woman” or a “Devil Woman.” Best of all is Santana’s megahit, “Black Magic Woman.”

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominees: David Clayton-Thomas’s over-the-top, Vegasy delivery somehow suited Blood, Sweat & Tears hits like “Spinning Wheel.” I love to impersonate him doing that one. But I love even more to belt out “Ooh, whatchoo gon’ to do? Loo-cee MacEvil!” “Lucretia MacEvil” is a terrible song in every way, but the vocal histrionics push it into the “so awful it’s divine” category.

One that’s just plain bad is The Eagles’ “Witchy Woman,” which played a memorable part in an episode of Seinfeld (“Witch-ay Woman”).

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