Last weekend I found myself in Repressed Records, one of Newtown’s thriving record stores. Despite the 30+ degree heat, I added vinyl upon vinyl to my generous pile of $5 sale records. I came across a few gems: The Louis Armstrong Orchestra 1935-41, a Sidney Bechet album that I forgot to put back into my pile, Dizzy Goes to Hollywood, Bop Jazz Lives (with Gillespie, Parker, my favourite saxophonist Sonny Rollins and others), Experience Jimi Hendricks, The London Chuck Berry Sessions, Wings’ Band on the Run, and George Shearing’s Deep Velvet. Others not in the $5 baskets but worth picking up were James Brown’s Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud, and a collector’s edition of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
While placing all the records on the counter, the guy working gave me a free Bessie Smith vinyl. “It’s got quite a large scratch on it,” he said, “but she’s a great blues artist.” I didn’t object. I packed it in along with my other records and walked back out into the glaring sun and oppressive heat, trying to protect my records from becoming warped as I walked along King Street.
I first placed the Shearing record on at home –which compelled my mum to drag out some golden oldies from the garage– and listened to the romantic tunes. Shearing’s music echoes moments in 50s movies where well-dressed women walk naively through the streets, or simply sit around looking beautiful. Shearing is often described as ‘sophisticated’; his fingers are attuned to the lush, romantic settings one intends to set for a relaxing night. It was a surprise to me to find out that my assistant supervisor was a fan. Shearing is not my favourite pianist; Ellington takes the cake in that department. Yet Shearing’s finger-work definitely has its place in my subconscious jukebox. ‘Passing By’ is my favourite song on the record, with an ethereal rhythm and sound that almost makes it sound like something off an episode of the Twilight Zone, or even a darker Walt Disney film.
I finally got around to listening to Bessie yesterday. Her voice, something extracted as if directly from the deep south (she was born in Tennessee), coupled with Clarence Williams’ piano, makes a lovely burlesque creation, made all the more poignant by her earnest lyrics in works such as ‘Down Hearted Blues’, ‘Keeps on a-Rainin’, ‘On Revival Day’ and ‘Aggravatin’ Papa’. The cover, titled Bessie Smith: The World’s Greatest Blues Singer, has a drawing of the blues artist clad in glamorous costume wear, with a big smile on her face. In spite of this depiction, Smith injects old-world pathos into each of her songs, making the recordings iconic remnants of a lost time. I haven’t heard anything remarkably close to that voice in this day and age.
The quality of sound is very moving and powerful, as it should be. I’ve yet to listen to the other gems I purchased (although I’m already acquainted with Davis’ work on the Kind of Blue album). But I’m grateful to the guy who gave me the Smith album: it’s a great addition to my burgeoning vinyl collection.