Picks and Pans Review: The Complete Recordings, Vol. I
It has been nearly 70 years since these incomparable blues were recorded, but disappointment and indignation have a long half-life. Smith sounds as vibrant, as defiant and as aflame with playfully righteous rage as she must have been when she made these records in 1923—24.
There are more than two hours of music on this two-CD set, and the tone is too unvaried to listen to both straight through. Few pop singers have been as musical or witty as Smith, though, and the songs include blues classics by such composers as Lovie Austin, Alberta Hunter and Clarence Williams, who also played piano for Smith.
The tunes range from familiar—"Down Hearted Blues," "Baby Won't You Please Come Home"—to the relatively unknown "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine" and "Aggravatin' Papa." Anyone who doubts Smith's genius need only listen to her subtly bitter, ironic delivery of "Outside of That": "He blacked my eyes/ I couldn't see/ Then he pawned the things/ He give to me."
Williams's and Fletcher Henderson's pianos are guttier support for Smith than the rooty-tooty reeds that showed up occasionally (though Don Redman, later a great big-band arranger, was her frequent clarinetist). Her voice, however, carries clear and strong across the technology of her era to today, remaining one of the great pleasures of popular music.
Don't look in this set for such Smith classics as "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." This, however, is only the first installment of a projected eight CDs of Smith records. They are part of the admirable Columbia/ Legacy Roots 'n Blues series of CD reissues. (Columbia)