The songwriter who popularized the blues form, W.C. Handy, published “St. Louis Blues” in 1914. It’s a slinky, haunting piece with a middle section that shifts into a tango rhythm, and most of the people who heard Bessie Smith’s recording in 1925 would have recognized it as a standard. They’d also have recognized Smith as an enormous star: “the Empress of the Blues.” But nobody was ready for her rendition, which stripped the song down to a raw, boastful, desperate performance, a chilling series of harmonium drones (played by Fred Longshaw) and painterly cornet flourishes by then up-and-coming jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Smith wields every phrase of the song like a butterfly knife, and who she cuts with it shifts from line to line — herself, the man who betrayed her, the “St. Louis Woman” whose arms he’s in now and the world to which she wants to make it absolutely clear what has happened.
Next ‘Ol’ Man River’