“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons. This edition tells the story of the 1925 recording session of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong
Excerpted from Bessie, by Chris Albertson
I’ve got the world in a jug;
The stopper’s in my hand.
“Down Hearted Blues”
When Bessie sang those words on her first recording date in 1923, her future looked promising, but by the onset of 1925, there was no longer any doubt — Bessie had “arrived.” She could look back on a year and a half of prominence and prosperity; her billing as “The Greatest and Highest Salaried Race Star in the World” was accurate; dreams of supporting her family had come true; and she did, indeed, seem to have the stopper in her hand.
On Wednesday, January 14, Bessie began her 1925 musical journey on a note of artistic triumph, at Columbia’s Columbus Circle studios. Fletcher Henderson had introduced Frank Walker to his most talked-about player, twenty-three-year-old Louis Armstrong, and Walker was apparently impressed, for this was just one of several sessions for which he hired the young, budding genius. Born in New Orleans, Armstrong joined Henderson’s orchestra in October 1923, having first lived almost a year and a half in Chicago, playing second cornet to King Oliver. He was still relatively unknown to the public at large, but his reputation among musicians was well established and a series of recordings would soon bring him worldwide fame, not to mention immortality.
At the time of this historic recording session, Henderson’s orchestra had a running engagement at the Roseland Ballroom, in midtown Manhattan, but it also appeared in such Harlem spots as the Renaissance Casino, the Newspaper Club, and Happy Rhone’s Orchestra Club. Armstrong had further kept busy on his own, participating on several recordings with groups like the Red Onion Jazz Babies and Clarence Williams’s Blue Five. His previous Columbia sides had been accompaniments for Maggie Jones and Clara Smith, but he finally found his artistic counterpart in Bessie Smith, and a more perfect team can hardly be imagined. The third participant was Fred Longshaw, but Armstrong’s cornet complements Bessie’s voice so thoroughly that the result sounds more like a series of duets with keyboard accompaniment. On the first two sides, that keyboard was a harmonium, an undersized, wheezy, foot-pedaled reed organ often found in small Southern country churches. The session started with “St. Louis Blues.” Jelly Roll Morton recalled that W.C. Handy — its publisher and composer of record — first published the tune in 1913 as “Jogo Blues” and credited it to his guitarist, Guy Williams. Morton claimed that Handy added some personal touches the following year and brought the tune out as “St. Louis Blues,” the title under which it became the most widely recorded of all blues. Others believe that Handy simply added his own refinements to a circulating folk tune and published it. Armstrong’s 1929 instrumental recording of the song is a classic, but many consider his collaboration with Bessie to be definitive.
“Bessie Smith, I think she’s one of the greatest, the madam of the blues, that we are going to get for generations to come,” said Armstrong in an October 1952 radio interview for Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS), Frankfurt. “It’s too bad that she didn’t live a little longer so that the younger generation could at least have heard her in person, you know. But her records will stand up forever, and the ‘St. Louis Blues’ I think is very beautiful, I think I’m playing it muted on here.” He is, and with Longshaw’s harmonium lending a delightful country church air to the proceedings, the two voices — Bessie and Louis — blend so effectively that one might mistake this effort for the fruit of a long and happy association rather than a first meeting. Undoubtedly inspired by young Louis’s mastery, Bessie gives a stellar performance; her steel-blue tones — punctuated by Armstrong’s crisp attack — drive the familiar lyrics into the listener’s very marrow. Her pacing is marvelous. At first mournful, she gradually builds up the emotional intensity, not unleashing her full power until she reaches the very last word, “nowhere,” just before the final strain, which she delivers with an impassioned growl.
On “Reckless Blues,” Longshaw’s puffing but gloriously effective harmonium trudges felicitously around and under Bessie’s plaintive vocal as Armstrong’s cornet injects keen comments on her every phrase. Characteristically, Bessie sounds as though she is expressing her own thoughts, singing of her own experiences, delivering her own lyrics. In this case, she may well have written the words. No one can say for sure just how much material she actually contributed to songs that were credited to her or how many of the two dozen or so songs registered in her name actually originated with her. Like all blues singers who wrote songs, Bessie picked up ideas and lines wherever she could find them. Columbia’s early session logs gave few details; no one paid much attention to the source of the material being recorded, and some songs were not registered for copyright until months later. Bessie and Fred Longshaw have both been listed as sole composer of “Reckless Blues,” but ASCAP lists the writers as Bessie Smith and Jack Gee. Chances are that Longshaw wrote the music and Bessie the words. She was known to give her marriage a boost by having Jack listed as co-composer. Like Maud said, tongue in cheek, “Jack couldn’t even compose himself, much less a song. He wasn’t creative at all.”
Longshaw switched to the more conventional piano for the rest of the session, which went equally well: “Cold in Hand Blues,” “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues,” and “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon” — song after song became a classic.
The slow tempo at which Bessie delivers Perry Bradford’s “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues” supports Sam Wooding’s claim that one could go to the bathroom in the middle of a blues and return without missing anything. “The type of blues was like a soap opera,” he said in a 1971 interview for this book. “The stories were all the same, and it took forever to tell them.” One could easily give Wooding an argument on that claim, but he was right about the tempo. Armstrong’s soulful open horn and Longshaw’s mournful piano set the mood with a laconic introduction, then Bessie’s story unfolds, enhanced exquisitely by a filigree weave from the cornet. The effect is breathtaking from beginning to end. Bessie’s generous pauses give Armstrong ample room to fill the spaces with glorious cornet comments. And he returns the generosity by leaving Bessie time to linger over a single note as long as she wishes, bending her way around it without feeling the need to rush on to the next phrase. Bessie’s rendering is a deep shade of blue, but far more relaxed than on previous collaborations with Armstrong. His coda is a memorable statement in itself, and when the results are as satisfying as this, who can quibble about tempo? That night, having recorded so gloriously with Bessie, Armstrong was back with the Henderson orchestra, playing for the Harlem YMCA’s annual dinner; the band was seated in the center of the gym, surrounded by tables of elegantly dressed guests. One wonders if there was much dinner conversation.
During Armstrong’s 1952 interview with AFRS, Frankfurt, a German fan mentioned that “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues” was a favorite. “Yeah!” exclaimed Louis. “What about ‘Good Ole Wagon’…’St. Louis’…In fact, everything I made with Bessie Smith. And it’s wonderful how she’d stand there all day and make the blues, and give them titles. It’s a wonderful thing, you know. We’d meet about nine o’clock in the morning and when she finished a blues, I’d say, ‘What’s that one, Bessie?’ and they were all different and pretty. So you know she’s a creator.”
Bessie and Louis ended their first studio encounter with one of Bessie’s own compositions, “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon,” a recording that has become a classic in the traditional jazz repertoire. With its burned-out-lover theme, it typifies Bessie’s brand of humor and is the kind of song her live audiences loved. Even her male audiences were amused by the image of a woman putting her man out to graze. “Bessie used to get them all choked up with those sad blues,” recalled drummer Zutty Singleton, who often observed her from the orchestra pit of the Lyric Theater in New Orleans, “but just as they were all ready to tell the world goodbye, she’s snap them out of it by calling for something she could work for laughs — it could be a sad story, but Bessie could tickle your funny bone with anything, if she set her mind to it.”
As Longshaw’s appropriately ambling piano marks out the path, Armstrong delivers a commanding performance, moving furtively with Bessie and providing brief, stunning, and sometimes humorous asides along the way. He is less prominent although equally effective here. From a purely artistic standpoint, this was a remarkably satisfying set of performances, a reminder of how fortunate it is that Bessie and Louis, unchallenged masters of their individual genres, were captured together at their artistic zenith.
Armstrong, who kept and meticulously cataloged copies of all his recordings, counted this session with Bessie among his favorites, but it wasn’t the music alone that made it so memorable. “I’ll never forget this date,” he told a Voice of America interviewer, “because one day I wanted get change for a hundred dollars — it was the first hundred dollar bill I had, and nobody had it in the band, quite naturally, so I said, ‘I wonder if Bessie Smith got change for a hundred dollars?’ I said, ‘Bessie, you got change for a hundred?’ She said, ‘Sure,’ and, man, she just raised up her dress and, like where a carpenter keeps his nails, she had so much money, it killed me.” Armstrong also mentioned Bessie’s remarkable apron in his 1952 Frankfurt interview: “What knocked me out was that she always had thousands of dollars right under that dress, there. You ask for change for a thousand dollars, she’d raise up her dress and snap one of those bad chickens, like a carpenter carries his nails — ‘Louis, I’ll give you change for a thousand dollars.’ Yeah, I liked that part, too.”
Excerpted from Bessie, by Chris Albertson
“St. Louis Blues”
“Sobbin’ Hearted Blues”
“Cold in Hand Blues”
“You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon”