April 17 2013
There is something wonderful about the black American songstress of the days gone by. They were usually big, with voices to match. I can always tell a black singer from her voice, because of a certain something, a je ne sais quoi in their voices, in particular, in the voices of the great jazz singers of the 50s and later. I venture an extreme opinion here when I say that singers of that era invariably were less schooled and less adept in the use of technology than their soul sisters of later decades. For one – they had to graduate to the recording studio by singing in clubs and speakeasies, in smoky and noisy conditions where they had to make themselves heard. Second, recording technology was not as advanced as it is in these days, so a less than perfect voice could not be digitally tampered with. As a result their voices sounded more authentic – a naturally lower timbre and the ability to hit high notes with great ease.
Last week I received my long lost consignment of LPs from France and among them was the treasured “At Last” by Etta James. Etta was born during the Depression to a single mother who had an unsettled life – many jobs, many men, and no money. No one knows for sure who her father was. She was brought up in a foster home and discovered singing in a club. Recording contracts followed. After she was relatively successful with a couple of big hits, the Argo label signed her and released this song and the eponymous LP in 1960. The song itself was moderately successful initially, but over the years has acquired a sheen. Just listen to the voice here, filled with longing for the loved one who is finally with her.
Music reflects the times, and it is very difficult to separate the performance from the context. This brings to mind the incomparable Queen of Soul, the one and only Aretha Franklin. One of most beautiful songs from the 60s is “I never loved a man (the way I loved you)”. And here is a story behind it. Atlantic Records (founded by the Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun) signed Aretha from another label. She was then flown to Atlanta to meet the backing band. This was during the 60s, civil rights, black power etc. The story goes that she met the band – all of whom were white and of course, all enamoured of this young lady who had already shown her talent. So they sat down, Aretha on the piano, and they banged out this song in two hours flat. It is very hard to not discern the natural desire of a newbie to showcase her talents even if it was to an admiring bunch of musicians who had not an ounce of prejudice. But this was the sixties in the South, and one can almost hear Aretha say – listen to this, boys, you ain’t heard nothing like this.
Love songs are normally about longing and absence – at least that was how they were. Therefore it is quite rare to come across this gem of a song that combines the longing of love with the pure lust of union, no matter how wrong it is or how messy the whole aspect of a man and a woman in love can get in life. Bessie Smith was another great black musician, who lived between 1895 or so until he tragic death in a car accident in 1937. She started life as a busker and lived a hard life. The story goes that when she was taken to hospital after the accident the hospital refused to admit her because she was black. The original recording by Bessie Smith is here. However – no disrespect to Bessie – I prefer the version by Nina Simone. Nina was a regal singer with a strong voice. She took Bessie’s original song and lyrics and modified it in 1968. I prefer it to Bessie’s – probably because the permissive 60s allowed Nina to include the lust in love into the song. Here it is – it really catches you by the throat.
And how can one not talk of the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald. She lived a long and honored life, culminating in the Congressional Medal of Freedom awarded by Bush 41. Born in 1917, she had a difficult and unhappy childhood but soon began singing on stage until her first recording contract. She sang scat and bebop, but really became the darling of the American people when Verve Records (a label created around her!) got her to record the Cole Porter Songbook. This became the first of a series of records that focused on a single composer and helped establish them in the pantheon as serious musical works. She also performed a subtle service to America – here was a black woman singing the songs that were predominantly composed by, sung by and listened to by the white American public. There are many songs by Ella to choose from but my personal favourite is from the Rodgers and Hart songbook, “Manhattan”. So evocative of that wonderful city, and so full of the simple joys of love between an ordinary guy and an ordinary girl. What could be more democratic than that?
Let’s conclude with my personal favourite from Billie Holiday. Another big black lady, with a voice that was made for wit and play with a beautiful vibrato. Her childhood was anything but happy. Born in 1915 to a teenage single mother, she spent her childhood with a relative for the most part since her mother worked on the railroads. Billie (born Eleanora Fagan) played truant from school at the age of 10 and was sent to reform school. At the age of 11 her neighbour raped her. Her mother moved to Harlem, and both mother and daughter became prostitutes. She was arrested and released at the age of 14. She then started singing in bars and clubs in Harlem. Talent will out, and she made her first record at the age of 18. Towards the end of her life (she died in 1959) she made an album for Verve whose title song “Day In Day Out” showcases her amazing talent. The sheer joy of it belies her incredibly difficult and tragic life. And when you listen to it you will understand why she is one of the great influences on jazz and pop singers since.
This cannot be an exhaustive list by any means and neither is this anything but a set of purely subjective opinions. I love these songbirds, and listening to them gives me hours of joy. It is always poignant to remember how unhappy their lives were, and wrought from these tempestuous beginnings were a musical gift we must treasure. Do explore these singers. Switch on the music. Take your favorite senor or senorita by the hand to the dance floor. On commence!