Friday, April 14, 2006

Bessie and Demas cont'd

"I had never heard Bessie Smith. I had only heard of her up until the time I recorded with her. I was so surprised when I finally heard her in the studio. She was so far above all the other blues singers I'd heard up until then---and that includes Lucille Hegamin whose band I was in one time and who probably was just as well known as Bessie in those days.

"You just couldn't stop listening to Bessie and looking at her when she sang. She was a large, attractive, brown-skinned woman, with very good legs. Later on I heard stories about how difficult she was, but I found her very relaxed, very sedate. As long as you were no problem to her, she was no problem to you. I was a little nervous about playing with her because she was expecting her favorite trumpet player, Joe Smith, and instead she was going to get me.

"When my friend the trombonist Charlie Green asked me to come down and record with Bessie, I said, 'Where's Joe?' He said he couldn't find him for this recording, so I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Ten days later, they still couldn't find Joe; he must have been on the road with Fletcher Henderson, so I recorded with Bessie a second time. There was no written music at all except for a lead sheet that her piano player Fred Longshaw had. We didn't have microphones; but horns we played into, like megaphones. These were what they called acoustical recordings. How it ever got into the booth I'll never know. These were very, very primitive recordings. . .so primitive that you couldn't even record drums because it threw everything out of whack.

"After meeting Bessie, we went right to work. She turned us over to her pianist, Fred Longshaw. The only thing that was interesting to him, as far as any rehearsal we might have done, was the introduction. We played an eight bar introduction, then Bessie sang. We'd never heard these numbers before, no music, but you're supposed to know the blues. If you didn't know the blues, you were like a lost ball in the tall grass.

"Every number she sang told a story. One was 'Pickpocket Blues.' When she sang it you knew right away what she was talking about---she was a pickpocket, her friends were trying to tell her to stop it. But she ended up in jail anyhow. . .'I'm in the jailhouse now.' It was a short story.

"I didn't bear those records that we made those two days until almost forty years later. I was in California when the record producer Chris Albertson called me and he asked if I had ever heard them and I said, 'no.' He sent me copies and I was pleasantly surprised. You couldn't listen to playbacks back in the days we first recorded them, because test pressings took a couple of days to get back. Musically, you were flying by the seat of your pants. But we only had to do one take on each of the songs to be satisfied."

Dean's discography would grow to include recordings with such other stars as Lena Horne and Sidney Bechet. AND in 1942 he hired Charlie Parker for the Noble Sissle band. If Demas were alive today---he died in 1990--- he would be 102; Bessie, ten years his senior. Whenever I was with Demas, I never failed to be moved by the fact he was fully aware and proud of the import and significance of everything he had done in the fields of theatre and music. Hear Bessie and Demas perform "Thinking Blues" - 1928 (mp3 links for a limited time only)

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