Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bessie Smith

  • The Essential Bessie Smith [Columbia, 1997] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Essential Bessie Smith [Columbia, 1997]
Smith was the best-selling and best-recorded artist of so-called classic blues. She got top sidemen from her royalty-skimming a&r boss Clarence Williams--Armstrong, Hawkins, Henderson, Goodman, Teagarden--and A-shelf material by the standards of her market. But musically, she's a bigger puzzle than is admitted, and although there may be a better compilation out there, I'll settle for this even though it omits, among other standouts I'm sure, the class-conscious "Washwoman Blues," the guitar-featuring "Mean Old Bedbug Blues," the horncatting "Empty Bed Blues," and the trifling "It Makes My Love Come Down." Records certainly spread her fame with the Southern-identified black audience she proudly entertained. But they didn't come near to capturing the live charisma of a funny lady with a big ego and a bigger heart who knew how to shake her big bones. Her singing was more about shading microtones than delivering a tune or powering a groove--she loved medium tempos and she's sometimes, sorry, too subtle. So while blues mavens wish she would sing nothing but, I say the Tin Pan Alley chestnut "After You've Gone" is a standout here, and find she benefits in general from the cheap marginal distinction of pop material right down to "It Makes My Love Come Down," a number otherwise uncelebrated in Bessie Smith scholarship--unlike "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," "Backwater Blues," "'Tain't Nobody's Bizness," "Aggravatin' Papa," "Gimme a Pigfoot," and whatever else you justifiably believe demolishes such quibbles. A-