The Feminine Touch
More often than not, music history is the product of inspired persistence rather than affected design. Such was the case on August 10, 1920 when Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds entered the Okeh studios in New York City to record Crazy Blues, the first commercial recording of what we now recognize as blues music. Thus began the era of the “Classic Blues Singers,” black female Vaudeville-trained entertainers who, as the pioneering superstars of the fledgling genre, launched the “race record” industry and made the blues a nationwide craze.
Perry Bradford, the composer of Crazy Blues, had to jump a few hurdles to get the session approved. The prevailing attitude among record executives at the time was that African-Americans had neither the interest nor the financial means to buy pre-recorded music. How wrong they were. Within a year, Crazy Blues was reported to have sold an unprecedented one million copies. Rival labels like Paramount, Bluebird, Black Swan and Columbia, anxious to cash in, scoured the Vaudeville circuit signing and recording singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter and Lucille Bogan.
Crazy Blues and its offspring sounded as much like jazz and cabaret as they did blues. Indeed, future jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Christian can be heard on several of these early recordings. But many of blues music's trademark elements, the 12-bar, 3-line structure and emotive vocal phrasings, are evident. Some of its most oft covered songs, 'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do, Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, See See Rider Blues and Stack O'Lee Blues, date from this time.
Wealthy, successful, living life on their own terms, challenging racial, gender and sexual norms, the ladies set the pace for the “roaring 20s”. Visually, their flamboyant costumes of feathers, sequins, headbands and jewelry brought glamour and sophistication to entertainment. Unabashed, they stated the female point of view and, judging by the explicit nature of some of their lyrics, no subject was taboo.
A statuesque six feet tall, powerfully voiced and totally convincing, Bessie Smith was the best of the batch. The highest paid black artist of the 1920's, the “Empress of the Blues” recorded some 160 songs for posterity.
But music and America were always moving on. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed vaporized discretionary incomes. Motion pictures and radio laid Vaudeville low. The new rage of big-band swing music and competition from recordings by male Delta and Texas country blues performers like Charlie Patton, Blind Blake, and Blind Lemon Jefferson abruptly ended the careers of those who could not adapt.
Bessie Smith died from injuries suffered in a car crash in 1937. Her grave remained unmarked until 1970 when a headstone, paid for with help from Janis Joplin, was erected. Mamie Smith passed away in 1946. In September of 2014, 68 years after her death, a headstone was placed on her anonymous grave in Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on Staten Island in New York City.
The indelible legacy of the classic blues singers plays forward through those they influenced over the intervening decades like Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, Billie Holiday, Memphis Minnie, Etta James, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt.
Throughout its 17 year history, the Thunder Bay Blues Festival has offered a supportive second home to new generations of talented females, more confident and empowered than ever before, including veterans like Debbie Davies and Janiva Magness and fresher faces like Joanne Shaw Taylor and Samantha Fish.
2018, being totally captivated by the "feminine touch," is very special. Friday night sees the return of the raspy, smoky vocals of folk-rock superstar Melissa Etheridge to Bluesfest. Saturday's tandem of headliners, Canadian music icon and Lilith Fair founder, Sara McLachlan and 9-time Grammy Award winner Sheryl Crow, who has sold 50 million albums of her of timeless music, will astound. The festival closes Sunday to the resonating sounds of multi-platinum selling rock star Pat Benatar and long-time husband in music and life, Neil Giraldo.
Canadian rock idol Sass Jordan, who has newly recorded her classic album Racine, will be there, as will alto sax giant, Mindi Abair partnered with Randy Jacobs' electrifying Detroit blues band The Boneshakers. Thunder Bay audiences will remember Mary Bridget Davies from her riveting 2017 performance in A Night with Janis Joplin at the Community Auditorium. Atop the don't miss list is Magpie Salute, a 10-piece southern rock band featuring ex Black Crow front man Rich Robinson, stunning guitarist Marc Ford and female back-up vocalists. One of Canada's finest showmen, Alan Doyle will delight with a stellar band including fiddle sensation Kendel Carson. Canadian alt-rockers, Big Wreck, in the midst of their 20th anniversary tour, and Hamilton-based, Juno Award winning pop rockers the Arkells will amplify the party vibe while The Blues Brotherhood cranks up the nostalgia and stage antics. 18-year-old, south-paw Spencer MacKenzie, Maple Blues' 2017 New Artist of the Year and International Songwriting Competition finalist lands squarely in the real deal blues department as do the 3 Blackburn brothers who will regale with their uniquely soulful take on blues and roots music. Lock stepped with this year's theme, many of our most creative local female musicians will take a turn on the Bluesfest stage. Always a popular draw is The Chain led by the powerful vocals and charm of Chrissy Klaas. Fans of horn driven R&B won't want to miss the Boardroom Gypsies underlined by the vocal duo of Cheryl Grant and Nancy Hamilton. Now focused on her solo career, Arley Hughes will weave stories from her brand new album of original blues songs. No act at this year's Bluesfest will match the sheer joy and enthusiasm of The Angies, 5 lovely young ladies who cover the Stones from their early days when they were a blues band. And, if you want to hear authentic blues slide guitar and good old rock 'n' roll, you're sitting in the right chair at the right place when Southern Comfort performs.
Prepare yourself for a long weekend of music, food, friends, sunshine, opinion and attitude. You're going to love every note, morsel, smile, ray, verb and exclamation point of it! Book passage for your senses at www.tbayblues.ca.