Etta James - I Just Want To Make Love To You

Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Records’ legendary producer, describes Etta James as “the greatest of all modern blues singers...the undisputed Earth Mother.” Her raw, unharnessed vocals and hot-blooded eroticism has made disciples of singers ranging from Janis Joplin to Bonnie Raitt. James’ pioneering 1950s hits - “The Wallflower” and “Good Rockin’ Daddy” - assure her place in the early history of rock and roll alongside Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles. In the Sixties, as a soulful singer of pop and blues diva compared with the likes of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, James truly found her musical direction and made a lasting mark.

James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938. Though brought up in the church, she was drawn to rhythm & blues and rock and roll, and by her midteens had formed a vocal trio that worked up an answer song to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me Annie” entitled “Roll With Me Henry.” The trio caught the attention of bandleader Johnny Otis, who recorded “Roll With Me Henry,” which was retitled “The Wallflower” and topped the R&B chart for four weeks in 1955. James toured the R&B circuit with Otis and other artists and recorded for Modern Records until 1958.

It was at the Chicago-based Chess label (where she recorded for Chess and its Argo and Cadet subsidiaries) that she molded her identity as a singer of both modern blues and pop-R&B ballads. She was signed by Leonard Chess in 1960 and had her talent nurtured by producer Ralph Bass and mentor Harvey Fuqua (of the Moonglows). James crossed over to the pop market as an interpreter of soulful, jazz-tinged ballads such as “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “My Dearest Darling,” “Trust in Me” and “Don’t Cry, Baby,” which she sang without sacrificing her bluesy and churchy vocal mannerisms. In the late Sixties, she adapted a grittier Southern-soul edge, cutting “Tell Mama” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which remain among the most incendiary vocal performances of the era. All totaled, James launched thirty singles onto the R&B singles chart and placed a respectable nine of them in the pop Top Forty as well.

For much of her career James battled heroin addiction, which has added to her aura as a survivor. A cleaned-up James made a successful comeback in the Seventies, re-signing with Chess in 1973 and opening for the Rolling Stones in 1978. In 1984, James sang “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the opening of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and through the late Eighties and Nineties remained active on the touring and recording fronts, cutting the Grammy-nominated albums Seven Year Itch in 1988 and Stickin’ to My Guns in 1990, and reuniting with Jerry Wexler to record 1992’s The Right Time with the simpatico Southern-soul musicians at Muscle Shoals Recording Studios. In 1993, James was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a year later she recorded Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday for the Private Music label. The tribute album earned James a Grammy Award, and she recorded more than half a dozen albums for Private through 2003, including Love's Been Rough on Me, Matriarch of the Blues and Let's Roll. The Dreamer appeared in November 2011. James passed away on January 20, 2012 at age 73.


Bessie Smith - I'm Wild About That Thing

Bessie Smith, the "EMPRESS OF THE BLUES".

Born on April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith was one of ten children. Both of her parents had died by her eighth birthday, and she was raised by her older sister Viola and encouraged to sing and dance by her oldest brother Clarence. He soon joined the Moses Stokes traveling show, leaving Smith and their brother Andrew to sing for pennies on Chattanooga street corners.

Clarence later arranged an audition for Smith with the Moses Stokes Company and she was hired as a dancer in 1912. She became friends with an older Moses Stokes veteran, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, who was called the Mother of the Blues and likely exercised some influence over the young singer. Smith had her own voice, however, and owed her success to no one. Her heavy, throaty vocals were balanced by a delightful sense of timing. Her live shows were a blend of comedy and drama in song. Smith was popular in Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore, but she was beloved in the South. In 1923, her vaudeville touring led her to Memphis, where she played packed houses at the Palace Theater on Beale Street.

On February 16, 1923, Smith recorded "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Down Hearted Blues," accompanied by Clarence Williams on piano. Although recorded by Memphis singer Alberta Hunter a year before, Smith's "Down Hearted Blues" sold more than 780,000 copies in six months. Her sales made her a blues star on par with Mamie Smith (no relation), a vaudeville singer who had ignited the race records market with her 1920 recording "Crazy Blues."

Although Smith recorded extensively for Columbia - nearly 160 songs between 1923 and her last session in 1933 - her live performances were equally successful. During the 1920s she commanded fees of $2,000 a week and played sold-out theaters across the South, North, and Midwest. Her stage success influenced women blues singers like Memphis Minnie, but male blues singers like Leadbelly, who only heard her on record, emulated her too. She recorded with the best jazz sidemen, including pianists Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson, clarinetists Benny Goodman and Buster Bailey, guitarist Eddie Lang, saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman, and cornetist Louis Armstrong. In May 1925, she made the first electronically recorded record, "Cake Walking Babies," by singing into the newly invented microphone.

During the Depression of the 1930s, Smith's drawing power in the large cities of the North and Midwest began to wane, but she remained popular in small towns and throughout the South. Furry Lewis proudly recalled playing with Smith in Chicago during the 1930s. She even made an early movie when W.C. Handy asked her to play the lead in a short film called "St. Louis Blues" loosely based on his song. On Sept. 26, 1937, after finishing a performance in Memphis, Smith and her manager were driving south on Highway 61, north of the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, when their car struck an oncoming truck. The crash nearly severed Smith's right arm. She was taken to G.T. Thomas Hospital (now the Riverside Hotel) in Clarksdale where she died the following morning.

Bessie Smith is buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.


Alberta Hunter - Darktown Strutters' Ball

Alberta Hunter was a pioneering African-American popular singer whose path crosses the streams of jazz, blues and pop music. While she made important contributions to all of these stylistic genres, she is claimed exclusively by no single mode of endeavor. Hunter recorded in six decades of the twentieth century, and enjoyed a career in music that outlasted most human lives.

Hunter was born in Memphis, and depending on which account you read, she either ran away from home or her family relocated to Chicago when she was 12-years-old. Her career began in the bawdy houses on the south side of Chicago, probably in 1911 or 1912, although she claimed 1909. Early on she married, but ultimately discovered she preferred women to men. In Chicago Hunter worked with legendary pianist Tony Jackson, was good friends with King Oliver's pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, and even sang in white clubs. But working in these violent, rough-and-tumble nighteries was dangerous business, and not long after an incident where Hunter's piano accompanist was killed by a stray bullet, she decided to try her talent in New York.

Not long after she arrived, Hunter made contact with the Harry Pace and his Black Swan Records concern. Hunter's initial records for Black Swan, made in May 1921, were the first blues vocals recorded by the company. Later, after Paramount acquired Black Swan, these sides were co-mingled with Hunter's newer Paramount recordings; her work from both labels dominated the early couplings in the Paramount 12000 Race series. Her recordings were also pressed up for labels like Puritan, Harmograph, and Silvertone under pseudonyms such as Josephine Beatty, Alberta Prime, Anna Jones, and even May Alix, the name of another (incidentally inferior) real live singer!

Although some listeners accustomed to her voice on her post-1977 recordings have little or no use for these early waxes, Hunter contributed positively to some very important sessions. These include a 1923 Paramount date where she was accompanied by a white group, the Original Memphis Five, said to be the first session of its kind; the famous Red Onion Jazz Babies session for Gennett-Champion's New York studio with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet that produced "Cake Walking Babies from Home" and the vocal version of "Texas Moaner Blues"; many sessions backed by Fletcher Henderson's earliest orchestra, and some others where she was supported by Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Lovie Austin, and Tommy Ladnier. Altogether, Hunter made more than 80 sides before 1930, most of them being made before 1925. A (rumored) rejected 1926 date for Vocalion teamed her with King Oliver, Lil Armstrong, and Johnny Dodds, but nothing concrete about this session has ever surfaced, and certainly no recordings of it.

During the '20s, Hunter also established herself as a songwriter of some significance; her song "Downhearted Blues" was covered by Bessie Smith on her first recording for Columbia -- it was a huge hit for Smith. Hunter was able to break easily into the black vaudeville circuit and by 1927 she was off to Europe for an extended stay which would keep her out of the U.S. for most of the depression. In London in 1934, Hunter made an extensive series of recordings with an orchestra led by Jack Jackson, some of these being straight-up pop records with no pretension of being blues or jazz. Returning to the U.S. in 1935, Hunter still found an audience waiting for her, but record dates were getting harder to come by. She made sessions with ARC, Bluebird, and Decca, but these generated no hits, and some weren't even released. Hunter ultimately wound up working for fly-by-night indies such as Regal and Juke Box in the '40s. Unfazed, Hunter worked the USO circuit during World War II and still had considerable drawing power in terms of personal appearances. There are those who insist that her recordings are nothing but a weak imitation of the real thing, and that it was Alberta Hunter the "live" performer that kept her fan base active during these years.

Hunter dropped out of show business for two decades starting in 1956 in favor of working as a licensed practical nurse at a hospital in the New York City area. She broke from this routine only once, in 1961, in order to make a justly celebrated album for Bluesville which reunited her with her old friends Lovie Austin and Lil Hardin Armstrong. None of her patients or co-workers at the hospital had any idea who she was or what a famous name she had been, and Hunter preferred it that way.

Amtrak Blues When Hunter retired from nursing in 1977, she was 81 and ready to go back on the road. By this time her voice was gritty, down and dirty, and her fans loved her for it. She made four albums for Columbia between 1977 and her death in 1984, including the extraordinary Amtrak Blues, and for many younger listeners these are the records by which Alberta Hunter is defined. Oddly, these same fans have little patience for her sweet and precious singing in the '20s, and relatively few outside of England would have much tolerance for her '30s work with Jack Jackson. Nonetheless, all of Hunter's recordings are interesting and wonderful in their own way.
Alberta Hunter was one of the earliest African-American singers, along with Sippie Wallace, to make the transition from the lowly brothels and sporting houses into the international spotlight. That she defies easy categorization attests to the astonishing fact that she was on the scene a little before the genres themselves were defined. Her longevity as a popular artist is equaled by only a few others, and she was successful in adapting her style to changes in popular taste, as well as along the lines of her own personal experiences.


Mississippi Fred McDowell - Freight Train Blues

When Mississippi Fred McDowell proclaimed on one of his last albums, "I do not play no rock & roll," it was less a boast by an aging musician swept aside by the big beat than a mere statement of fact. As a stylist and purveyor of the original Delta blues, he was superb, equal parts Charley Patton and Son House coming to the fore through his roughed-up vocals and slashing bottleneck style of guitar playing. McDowell knew he was the real deal, and while others were diluting and updating their sound to keep pace with the changing times and audiences, Mississippi Fred stood out from the rest of the pack simply by not changing his style one iota. Though he scorned the amplified rock sound with a passion matched by few country bluesmen, he certainly had no qualms about passing any of his musical secrets along to his young, white acolytes, prompting several of them -- including a young Bonnie Raitt -- to develop slide guitar techniques of their own. Although generally lumped in with other blues "rediscoveries" from the '60s, the most amazing thing about him was that this rich repository of Delta blues had never recorded in the '20s or early '30s, didn't get "discovered" until 1959, and didn't become a full-time professional musician until the mid-'60s.

He was born in 1904 in Rossville, TN, and was playing the guitar by the age of 14 with a slide hollowed out of a steer bone. His parents died when Fred was a youngster and the wandering life of a traveling musician soon took hold. The 1920s saw him playing for tips on the street around Memphis, TN, the hoboing life eventually setting him down in Como, MS, where he lived the rest of his life. There McDowell split his time between farming and keeping up with his music by playing weekends for various fish fries, picnics, and house parties in the immediate area. This pattern stayed largely unchanged for the next 30 years until he was discovered in 1959 by folklorist Alan Lomax. Lomax was the first to record this semi-professional bluesman, the results of which were released as part of an American folk music series on the Atlantic label. McDowell, for his part, was happy to have some sounds on records, but continued on with his farming and playing for tips outside of Stuckey's candy store in Como for spare change. It wasn't until Chris Strachwitz -- folk-blues enthusiast and owner of the fledgling Arhoolie label -- came searching for McDowell to record him that the bluesman's fortunes began to change dramatically.

Two albums, Fred McDowell, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, were released on Arhoolie in the mid-'60s, and the shock waves were felt throughout the folk-blues community. Here was a bluesman with a repertoire of uncommon depth, putting it over with great emotional force, and to top it all off, he had seemingly slipped through the cracks of late-'20s/early-'30s field recordings. No scratchy, highly prized 78s on Paramount or Vocalion to use as a yardstick to measure his current worth, no romantic stories about him disappearing into the Delta for decades at a time to become a professional gambler or a preacher. No, Mississippi Fred McDowell had been in his adopted home state, farming and playing all along, and the world coming to his doorstep seemed to ruffle him no more than the little boy down the street delivering the local newspaper.

Sticky Fingers The success of the Arhoolie recordings suddenly found McDowell very much in demand on the folk and festival circuit, where his quiet, good-natured performances left many a fan utterly spellbound. Working everything from the Newport Folk Festival to coffeehouse dates to becoming a member of the American Folk Blues Festival in Europe, McDowell suddenly had more listings in his résumé in a couple of years than he had in the previous three decades combined. He was also well documented on film, with appearances in The Blues Maker (1968), his own documentary Fred McDowell (1969), and Roots of American Music: Country and Urban Music (1970) among them. By the end of the decade, he was signed to do a one-off album for Capitol Records (the aforementioned I Do Not Play No Rock 'N' Roll) and his tunes were being mainstreamed into the blues-rock firmament by artists like Bonnie Raitt (who recorded several of his tunes, including notable versions of "Write Me a Few Lines" and "Kokomo") and the Rolling Stones, who included a very authentic version of his classic "You Got to Move" on their Sticky Fingers album. Unfortunately, this career largess didn't last much longer, as McDowell was diagnosed with cancer while performing dates into 1971. His playing days suddenly behind him, he lingered for a few months into July 1972, finally succumbing to the disease at age 68. And right to the end, the man remained true to his word; he didn't play any rock & roll, just the straight, natural blues.