FEATURED ARTIST / S
|Bessie Mae Smith (St Louis Bessie)|
Genre: St Louis Blues, Barrelhouse Piano, Blues Piano.
Informative Notes by Mike Rowe.
By the 20's St Louis's black areas must have seemed like one huge barrelhouse of country jukes as the migrants carried on their Southern traditions odd concession to the new urban environment. Pianos, a rarity in the country were anything but in town and St Louis and its twin, the wide-open East St Louis, were piano towns (possibly a legacy of the mid-Western ragtime).
When, in 1929, Sam Wolff of Wolff's Record Shop, 1319 Biddle, despatched Henry Townsend and pianist Sylvester Palmer to Chicago to record for Columbia and Smoky Harrison, Bessie Mae Smith and Wesley Wallace to Paramount the stage was set for a discographical mystery which would run and run. Briefly, Wesley Wallace has been suggested as the pianist on Sylvester Palmer's records and is even thought to be Robert Peeples too! There are problems with these identifications though. The raggy Do It Sloppy hardly supports Wallace's presence (although this could be the lone example of Palmer himself) but serious objections are the usually reliable Henry Townsend's insistence that Palmer played his own piano (he had a "peculiar" style according to Townsend). On the evidence of Fanny Lee and the fantastic No. 29 Wallace is a much more dynamic performer but from Bessie Mae Smith's sides a less skilled accompanist.
The Peeples theory rests on Mama's Boy where the piano, certainly Wallace, sounds as though the singer is accompanying himself. This MAY be Wallace and simply wrongly credited for the vocalist of Fat Greasy sounds a different singer. Henry Brown who also accompanied Peeples apparently remembered him and should have known if he'd recorded as Wesley Wallace but like Townsend Brown didn't know Wallace. An unissued test of Peeples, Worry Blues (L188-1), has a poorly played guitar accompaniment suggesting, if anything, that Peeples might have been a guitarist!
Bessie Mae Smith, who was married to Big Joe Williams, recorded as Blue Belle, St Louis Bessie, possibly Mae Belle Miller and, as late as 1941, as Streamline Mae (Mary Belle Smith). Tee McDonald is almost certainly Tecumseh McDowell, and possibly Dolly Martin also. McDowell, from Arkansas, was eighteen when she recorded for Bluebird in 1933 and this session, just a year later, may have necessitated a pseudonym. Most of the St Louis women singers sound similar; influenced by Mary Johnson or Alice Moore, they generally had high-pitched sometimes shrill, nasal voices with material (eg. Beef Man) often as rough and ready as their singing. These were truly barrelhouse women. One of their favourite accompanists was the much better known Henry Brown from Troy, Tennessee. Most of Brown's recordings were with Rodgers or as accompanist to Mary Johnson or Alice Moore but his own solos are varied and attractive examples of his style. Eastern Chimes has, like Blind Boy, a chorded bass and gives a curiously "hollow" sound, which seems to be a characteristic of the St Louis pianists. Deep Morgan is a performance of some power and Henry Brown Blues strides away to great effect with its walking bass interspersed between treble breaks. Brown's easy-paced solos and appealing melodies seem the antithesis of the eccentric brilliance of "Palmer-Wallace" but they all share that same hollow mournfulness that seems to typify the St Louis barrelhouse blues.