From the opening notes of trombone, piano, trumpet and clarinet, this sounds like a Jazz record. But when the vocalist comes in, the music takes a turn. “I can’t sleep at night, I can’t eat a bite because the man I love, he don’t treat me right.” 32 bars in and the first line of the chorus clarifies everything: “Now I’ve got the crazy blues, since my baby went away.”
This is “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds. Recorded on August 10, 1920, it is the first vocal Blues record.
Give it a listen: “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds
The vocalist, Mamie Smith, the then-37-year-old African-American Jazz and Blues singer, had sung and danced and played piano on the Vaudville circuit since she was 10.
The song was written by African-American composer Perry Bradford in 1912. Originally called “Nervous Blues,” he changed the title to “Crazy Blues” for its publication in 1915.
Today, this type of Blues is referred to as “Classic Blues:” a female vocalist with at least a piano for accompaniment, all instruments (no strings, please) playing in the Jazz style of the times.
In 1920, however, this was something new and “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds took everyone by surprize. OKeh records sold 75,000 copies in the first month after its release and 1,000,000 before six months had passed.
The success of “Crazy Blues” proved that there was a very real market for music by African-American artists. American record companies began recording and releasing such records in earnest. The door to a recording career opened for such established performing artists as Bessie Smith (“Empress of the Blues”), Alberta Hunter, Sara Martin (“The Blues Sensation of the West”), Ma Rainey (“Mother of the Blues”) and Victoria Spivey. In 1924, OKeh recorded the first male Blues singer, singer/guitarist Ed Andrews. By the late 1920’s, five different record companies competed for sales in the category that had become known as “race records.”
Also in the 20’s, Metronome magazine announced: “Blues are here to stay.”
What a powerful voice she has. We can only imagine how she would have sounded in a multi-track recording studio with state-of-the-art equipment. This seems to be true of many of these early blues singers; booming voices, most likely accustomed to performing unamplified.
Alberta Hunter…. I have a couple of CD’s recorded when she was in her 80’s or 90’s. My understanding of her history is that she had her early singing career, then left the business to become a nurse, only to be re-discovered years later, resulting in these later recordings.
Still a great voice, even in advanced age….