VARIOUS ARTISTS / “St. Louis Blues”
This week we will listen to fourteen (that’s right! fourteen) versions of “St. Louis Blues,” W. C. Handy’s signature blues composition. W. C. (William Christopher) Handy is often cited as the “Father of the Blues.” That claim is made in much the same way Jellyroll Morton is referred to as the “Father of Jazz.” In both cases it’s because these two men were the first to write down and copyright songs representative of blues and of jazz. The validity of their copyrights notwithstanding, neither of the two started blues or jazz. The founders are unknown to us today, if indeed any one person can claim that distinction. From a thumbnail perspective (and greatly simplifying for the sake of brevity), we might say that jazz grew out of a music known as ragtime mixed with blues. Indeed, I believe without blues, jazz as we know it could not have existed even though jazz is not synonymous with blues. At the same time, all of the great jazz musicians who made significant contributions to the development of jazz, each of them was well schooled in the blues. “St. Louis Blues” is one of the great blues compositions. Legend has it Handy wrote the song inspired by a despondent woman he met on the street in St. Louis who told him her man had “a heart like a stone cast in the sea,” which became one of the famous lines in the song. Handy is quoted as saying he wanted to mix ragtime with authentic Negro melodies. It’s interesting that the song contains both the classic blues form and a bridge that employs Latin rhythms, giving it what Jellyroll famously called the “Latin tinge.” Handy published the song in 1914 with his own publishing company. “St. Louis Blues” is one of the most famous jazz compositions ever and as been recorded hundreds of times over the years. Here now are 14 versions. 1. W. C. Handy – W.C. Handy's Memphis Blues Band This is from a 1922 recording and clearly represents early jazz. 2. Furry Lewis – Shake ‘Em On Down Handy conceived of the song for a band but listen to Furry Lewis take the song back to its roots in the backwoods country blues. In this case it’s just Furry and his guitar demonstrating the power of the blues. I particularly like how Furry’s version does not diminish the emotional complexity of the song but also adds a raw intensity that is the blues at its best. 3. Carey Bell – Mellow Down Easy Bell is a Chicago bluesman specializing in blowing the harp (harmonica). He’s big city blues compared to Lewis’ country blues. His approach is a tad bit more sophisticated in its use of harmony as he improvises on the changes. 4. Louis Armstrong – Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy Well, what can you say? This is Pops (aka Louis Armstrong) jiving around with his fifties band, The All Stars featuring Velma Middleton on vocals dueting/dueling with Pops. I guess you can call this modern New Orleans traditional jazz. Although this was recorded on the downside of Pops’ prime, it’s still a swinging slice of jazz from one of the progenitors of modern music. 5. Joe Turner – The Boss Of The Blues During his hey day he was known as the “Boss of the Blues” who came to fame out of the rough and tumble territory band of one Mr. Count Basie—the “territory” being the lower midwest centered around Kansas City. These cats would play all night and sleep half the day in preparation for the next night. Big Joe Turner was a classic shouter of the thirties and forties who made a successful transition to the newer jump blues and the early rock and roll styles. 6. Big Maybelle – Candy! She’s Turner’s female counterpart. Although she is not often cited, as this version makes clear she was a serious singer who was magnificent at reading lyrics and imbuing her performances with a beguiling combination of finesse and knock-you-over power. 7. Ella Fitzgerald – Get Happy! Where the territory bands employed riffs and pick-up arrangements often generated on the spot, swing eventually morphed into more sophisticated charts for big bands. Here, one of jazz’s most gifted singers fronts a swinging orchestra and more than holds her own, demonstrating why she was often considered the greatest jazz singer. 8. Duke Ellington – Plays The Blues Back To Back Duke Ellington combined with one of his perennial sidemen, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges for this superbly swinging version featuring an all star line up of Harry Sweets Edison on trumpet and Papa Jo Jones on drums (both from the Count Basie band) along with Sam Jones on bass. Ellington was known primarily as a composer and band leader but he was more than a capable pianist who always had a decidedly modernist bent especially noticeable in his choice of chords. Johnny Hodges' forte was the sonority of his alto playing and his enchanting melodic abilities. Sensual sounds just seemed to ooze out of Johnny's alto. 9. Dizzy Gillespie – Have Trumpet, Will Excite Dizzy was one of the architects of bebop jazz but he was also the greatest advocate of Latin rhythms in jazz. From jump street starting with syncopated handclaps this is an outstanding performance that emphasizes rhythmic complexity. 10. Chuck Berry – The Chess Years Hail, hail rock and roll. Who would have thought of Chuck Berry rocking out on “St. Louis Blues”? Check out what the fifties wrought. 11. The Isley Brothers – Shout And if Mr. Berry wasn’t wild enough, here come my pick as R&B’s most important male singing group but this is early, early Isley Brothers. They still have one foot deep in doo wop and the are wearing their influences on their sleeve, in this case it’s Jackie Wilson they’re aping. 12. Oliver Nelson – Verve Jazz Masters 48 Alto saxophonist, composer and arranger Oliver Nelson was born in St. Louis. A jazz musician who also had a major career as a composer for television, Nelson was a magician as an arranger. The version features New Orleans-born trumpeter and Basie Band alum, Joe Newman. Nelson dips into a West Coast "cool jazz" style for this low key rendering. 13. Regina Carter – I’ll Be Seeing You Violinist Regina Carter offers what is possibly the sweetest of these fourteen versions. The vocalist is Carla Cook. It’s from a tribute album to Carter’s deceased mother featuring songs that were favorites of Regina’s mother. 14. Herbie Hancock featuring Stevie Wonder – Then And Now Herbie and Stevie deservedly won Grammys for this one. Herbie there’s no surprise, and given Stevie’s talent we ought not be surprised, but damn my man has a depth to his talent that is seemingly inexhaustible. Imagine what might happen if Steve did a serious jazz album. Damn, I’d sure love to hear that. —Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Monday, November 3rd, 2008 at 2:06 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
3 Responses to “VARIOUS ARTISTS / “St. Louis Blues””
Leave a Reply
| top |