Phil Schaap Jazz

Bessie Smith's Final Record Date

In late November 1933, the one and only Empress of The Blues, Bessie Smith, entered the studio for the last time. Waxed on November 24th, they represent a major transition in Jazz: a passing of the torch from the old guard to the soon-to-be new stars. That same week, Billie Holiday, who was both influenced by Smith, and was poised to become one of the dominant singers of the Swing Era, appeared on a similarly produced Goodman-led date. Bessie Smith was backed by a band composed of several musicians who would be among the most popular and influential of the coming Swing Era: Chu Berry, Frankie Newton, Jack Teagarden, and on one selection Benny Goodman! The meeting of this ‘Grand Dame’ and such young ‘cats’ produced a handful of classics. There was little market for The Blues – or anything else on disc - in those early Depression years. It had been over two years since Smith had made a record (that penultimate date being November 20, 1931). Young John Hammond, however, wanted to record her and he got it done. With zeal for racial equality, and unwavering interest in Jazz, Hammond arranged for a record date with the legendary Smith, and a most stellar ensemble. Billed as “Buck and his band,” it was composed of Buck Washington (of Buck and Bubbles fame), piano, Frankie Newton, trumpet, Jack Teagarden, trombone, Benny Goodman, clarinet, Chu Berry, tenor, Bobby Johnson, guitar, and Billy Taylor Sr., bass. Issued on the now budget label, OKeh, the group recorded: “Do Your Duty”; “Gimme A Pigfoot”; “Take Me For A Buggy Ride”; and “I’m Down In The Dumps” issued on OKeh releases #s 8945 and 8949. They were all composed by “Kid” Wesley Wilson, a prolific composer and vaudeville star. Perhaps most surprisingly though, none of the tunes the Smith recorded that day were Blues! They were all either standard popular song formats of 32 bars, 16 + 16 bars, or most unusually 10 + 10 bars with a 2 bar tag, in the case of “Gimme A Pigfoot!” It is highly probably traditional 12 bar blues were intentionally avoided as to not give the records an overtly old-time, or dated sound. Smith dominates the records - sounding as powerful as ever, and obviously glad to be back in the studio. Her vocals on “Buggy Ride,” are wonderfully unbuttoned, while she’s exceptionally soulful on “Pigfoot,” and “Down In The Dumps. There are numerous instrumental highlights in between here superb vocals: Newton, Washington, Teagarden, and Berry, all solo on “Duty,” Newton is featured on “Pigfoot,” and some delicious obbligato from Teagarden and Berry, behind Smith, is present on “Dumps.” Astonishingly Goodman does not solo at all, and is barely audible. Indeed, Goodman can only be heard in the distance playing an obbligato behind Bessie on “Gimme A Pigfoot”. Despite Goodman’s own testimony in seems more than unlikely that he plays on the other three titles. In any case, it’s a very rare instance of the {future} King of Swing not being featured As outstanding as the music was, the records sold poorly. Smith prime time was past and The Great Depression repressed sales. It wasn’t until after her death (September 26, 1937), that they were reissued as part of a memorial set, and she was rediscovered. The Empress’ final recording session outlines Jazz – and for that matter Blues – at a juncture: an essential member of the old guard handing the baton to the emerging stars. These recording provide a fitting and gratifying close to Bessie Smith’s recorded legacy.  [by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]