As evidenced by the five double-disc sets issued by Columbia at the end of the last century, Bessie Smith
was at the very least prolific. From the beginning of her series of recordings for the label in 1923, she recorded and toured almost incessantly until her death in an automobile accident in 1937. England's JSP issues its first volume in a projected two-volume series that places her first 90 sides -- master takes only -- on four fine sounding CDs. There are decent notes in each volume documenting her rise to fame, from 1923's "Downhearted Blues" b/w "Gulf Coast Blues" until she became the undisputed queen, perhaps even Empress, of the genre in 1926 with the hits "Hard Time Blues" and "Honey Man Blues." The liners detail the inclusion of many famous sidemen from Fletcher Henderson (who replaced her first pianist, and manager, Clarence Williams
) and clarinet boss Don Redman, cornettist Joe "Fox" Smith, trombone player Charlie Green
, and Elmer Snowden
on banjo on "Nobody's Blues But Mine" and "I Ain't Got Nobody." Even the great Louis Armstrong appeared with Smith during the years 1924 and 1925, when her bands were just a tad bigger. The amazing thing as one listens to these sides is that Smith's voice is stronger than all these instruments combined. Given that her voice was such a force of nature, it's a wonder that Columbia booked her sessions with such illustrious talents in the first place -- Armstrong, Henderson, and Redman -- as well as Buster Bailey
were already established artists. Of the 90 cuts here, all are worth hearing, even though some performances, understandably, are better than others. Suffice to say that these sides are actually a better investment that the Columbia sides simply because they cost about half as much and there are only a pair of sets as opposed to five. At this price it's worth investing just for the curious. That said, however, one cannot place these liner notes in the same category with the ones on Columbia's set, which are superior in every way, but there is enough information here to get started at the very least, and all the sessions are detailed as well.