Born 21st March 1930 Died 24th April 1970
Born in Jackson, Mississippi, to a musical family, his mother was a guitarist and father a pianist in the blues style of the day. he learned the piano as a child of eight, and initially played in church, moving on to performing at dances and other locations and only a few years later was playing competently enough to win a competition playing and singing songs such as ‘Backwater Blues’ and ‘ Four O’clock Blues. By the age of fourteen was a member of a small local combo and by 1947 had moved to Chicago after the death of his mother. Here he established himself within the blues community working some of the more established musicians of the day such as Memphis Slim and Roosevelt Sykes, before fronting the house band in Chicago’s Tick Tock club.
Around 1952 Spann was given a big break when he was invited to join the Muddy Waters Band, replacing Big Maceo, who had suffered a stroke, eventually becoming a permanent member, where was to remain for most of his professional career. Seemingly destined to be a background artist, until his performance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival with The Muddy Waters Band. During this appearance he sang a blues number with words by the poet Langston Hughes, this led to sessions that provided the classic album ‘Otis Spann Is The Blues’ on the newly formed Candid Records. In this recording he performed duets with his old friend and guitarist singer Robert Lockwood Jr. an extraordinary album regarded by many to be his best.
He went on to record some excellent records for Storyville ‘Piano Blues’ and ‘Portrait In Blues’ for Decca ‘ The Blues of Otis Spann and Prestige ‘The Blues Never Die!’ Two British tours in 1963 and 1964 made a huge impression on the growing R&B movement there. On the second visit he recorded two tracks with guitarist Eric Clapton, ‘Pretty Girls Everywhere’ and ‘Stirs Me Up’. In 1969 Spann produced an album in collaboration with Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, Danny Kirwin and John McVie, ‘The Biggest Thing Since Colossus’ which was to prove his last major work before his deathe from cancer in 1970.
Born 15th april 1894 Died 26th September 1937
There always has been some confusion over the actual birth date of Bessie Smith, the 1900 census noted July 1892, while the 1910 census recorded 15th April 1894, a date that has been noted on subsequent documents and the Smith family. Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to William Smith a laborer and part time Baptist preacher and his wife Laura Owens. Tragically by the time she was nine years old Bessie had lost both her father and mother, her older sister took on the role of looking after her siblings. to earn money Bessie would sing and dance on street corners with her brother Andrew playing guitar. In 1914 her older brother Clarence left home to join a traveling show owned by Moses Stokes, he returned to Chattanooga in 1912 and arranged for Bessie to audition for the show. The group already had a singer on board, Ma Rainey, so Bessie was hired as a dancer. but soon after joining she was singing the blues encouraged by Rainey. Playing with this group gave her the experience to progress to other shows on the black vaudeville circuit. In 1913 she did a stint at the 81 Theatre in Atlanta giving her an opportunity to display her huge vocal talent, by this stage she was also developing a lifestyle of alcohol fueled, free living which would change little over the next thirty years. By 1920 Smith was headlining and well on her way to being one of the finest blues singers to come out of the USA. Bessie was signed to Columbia Records in 1923 and her first record became an immediate hit, ‘Downhearted Blues’ and ‘Gulf Coast Blues’, the record sold over 780,000 in six months. Over the next few years Smith recorded some 150 classic sides, many accompanied by some jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Harrison and Don redman. She recorded a huge variety of material, from ‘Back Water Blues’, later covered by Dinah Washington, and ‘Cemetery Blues’ to ‘House Rent Blues’ and standards like ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ and ‘Mean Old Bedbug Blues’
In 1929 she made her only appearance on film, starring in ‘St. Louis Blues’, with James P. Johnson and members of the recently disbanded Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. In the same year Smith recorded one of her greatest classics ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’. By this stage Bessie’s recording career was virtually at an end, due in part to the Great Depression hitting the recording industry, drink and poor judgement. However she continued to tour performing to a dedicated if diminished audience. In 1933 John Hammond asked Smith to record four sides for the Okeh label which had been acquired by Columbia, these were to be her last recordings, made in November ’33. The recordings demonstrated her ability to transform her style as she recorded with artists attuned to the new swing era, but she still demonstrated that she was in charge. the artists include Jack Teagarden, Billy Taylor, Frankie Newton, Chu Berry, Buck Washington and Billy Taylor.
Smith was fatally injured in a road accident on 26th September. The Empress Of The Blues as she was known, will always be remembered as the greatest and most influential singer to emerge from the blues idiom of the 1920’s, her voice, personality and creative talent were unmatched. So many contemporaries drew from her example that virtually all subsequent artists in the blues and some in the jazz fields have links that emanate from her influence.