There were many female singers that left their indelible mark in the pop music field back in the 40s and 50s. These ladies had a lot of things in common: they each had a unique and very influential style; and they each were quite adept and flexible in working with the main popular genres of the day: the blues, which lead to R&B, and to Rock & Roll.
We are going to cover just four of them here:
- Bessie Smith,
- Ella Mae Morse,
- Ruth Brown, and
- Etta James.
By 1923, when she began her recording career, Smith had taken up residence in Philadelphia. There she met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was released.
During the marriage, a stormy one, with infidelity on both sides, Smith became the highest paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own railroad car. Her husband was impressed by the money, but never adjusted to show business life, or to Smith’s bisexuality. In 1929, when she learned of his affair with another singer (Gertrude Saunders), Bessie Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.
Smith eventually found a common-law husband in an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton’s uncle and the antithesis of her husband. She stayed with him until her death.
Bessie Smith was signed by Columbia Records in 1923 and her first session for Columbia was February 15, 1923. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia’s regular A- series; when the label decided to establish a “race records” series, Smith’s “Cemetery Blues” (September 26, 1923) was the first issued.
In 1928 Smith recorded “Empty Bed Blues”.
As an example of how Bessie’s style and material have contributed to Rock and Roll, here is a cover version of “Empty Bed Blues” that would be recorded in 1957 by Lavern Baker.
Some historians argue Bessie Smith is the most influential pop singer of the 20th century and that you can trace her influence as a belter and as an original lyric stylist from Billie Holliday to Etta James to Aretha Franklin to Frank Sinatra to Janis Joplin, and the list goes on. Bessie Smith was a glorious pioneer who deserves constant rediscovery.
Ella Mae Morse
She was hired by Jimmy Dorsey when she was 14 years old. Dorsey believed she was 19, and when he was informed by the school board that he was now responsible for her care, he fired her.
In 1942, at the age of 17, she joined Freddie Slack’s band, with whom in the same year she recorded his “Cow Cow Boogie“, Capitol Records’ first gold single.
In 1943, Morse began to record solo. She reached #1 in the R&B chart with “Shoo-Shoo Baby” in December for two weeks. In the same year she performed “Cow Cow Boogie” in the film Reveille.
She sang in a wide variety of styles, and had hits on both the U.S. pop and rhythm and blues charts. However, she never received the popularity of a major star because her versatility prevented her from being placed into any one category of music.
In 1946, “House of Blue Lights” by Freddie Slack and Morse, (written by Slack and Raye) saw them perform what was one of many of Raye’s songs picked up by black R&B artists.
This song would become a bigger hit when covered by Chuck Miller.
The song “40 Cups Of Coffee” was recorded as a single by Morse and released by Capitol Records in 1953.
This song would be covered in 1957 by a group called Bill Haley & His Comets in a definite Rock and Roll style.
As Morse’s musical style blended jazz, blues, and country, she has sometimes been called the first rock ‘n’ roll singer. A good example is her 1942 recording of the song “Get On Board, Little Chillun“, which, with strong gospel, blues, boogie, and jive sounds as a genuine precursor to the later rockabilly/ rock ‘n roll songs.
Her records sold well to both Caucasian and African-American audiences. As she was not well known at the time of her first solo hits, many people assumed she was African-American because of her ‘hip’ vocal style and choice of material.
in the late 1940’s, bandleader Cab Calloway’s sister, Blanche Calloway, arranged a gig for a very young Ruth Brown at a Washington, D.C. nightclub called Crystal Caverns. Blanche soon became her manager.
Willis Conover, a Voice of America radio disc jockey, caught her act with Duke Ellington and recommended her to audition for Atlantic Record, so in 1948 Atlantic Records bosses Ertegün and Abramson drove to Washington, D.C., from New York City to hear her sing in the club. Although her repertoire was mostly popular ballads, Ertegün convinced her to switch to Rhythm and Blues.
Around that time Ruth was involved in a serious car accident and was unable to attend the audition as planned. She had to stay in hospital for 9 months to recover and signed with Atlantic from her hospital bed.
In 1949 during her first audition for Atlantic, she sang a song written by Antoine Domino and Dave Bartholomew that ended up becoming a big hit, “So Long“.
This was followed in 1950 by “Teardrops from My Eyes“.
Written by Rudy Toombs, this song became the first upbeat major hit for Brown. Recorded for Atlantic Records in New York City in September 1950, and released in October, it was Billboard’s R&B #1 for 11 weeks. The hit earned her the nickname “Miss Rhythm” and within a few months Brown became the acknowledged Queen of R&B.
She followed up with “I’ll Wait for You” (1951), “I Know” (1951), “5-10-15 Hours” (1953), and in 1953 with “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean“.
In 1987 Brown’s fight for musicians’ rights and royalties led to the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. She was inducted as a Pioneer Award recipient in its first year, 1989, and was also inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1993, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Brown recorded and sang along with fellow rhythm and blues performer Charles Brown, and toured with Bonnie Raitt in the late 1990s.
Her 1995 autobiography, Miss Rhythm, won the Gleason Award for music journalism. She also appeared on Bonnie Raitt’s 1995 live DVD Road Tested singing the song “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” She was nominated for another Grammy in the Traditional Blues category for her 1997 album, R+B=Ruth Brown.
Her style spanned a variety of music genres including blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, gospel and jazz. James is regarded as having bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, and is the winner of six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards.
In 1955 Johnny Otis, Hank Ballard, and Etta James teamed up to write a song called “The Wallflower” (also known as “Roll With Me Henry“. This was one of several songs written in response to Hank Ballard’s very successful 1954 hit, “Work With Me Annie“, and it had the same 12-bar blues melody.
Etta James recorded this song for Modern Records (with vocal responses from Richard Berry) under the title “The Wallflower” and it became a rhythm and blues hit, topping the U.S. R&B chart for 4 weeks. This song was popularly known as “Roll with Me Henry“.
Now, back then, this song was considered too risque to play for young audiences on pop radio stations, so in that same year (1955), the the original version was sanitized and covered for the [white] pop market by Georgia Gibbs with the title “Dance With Me Henry“.
To Etta James’ chagrin, Georgia Gibbs’ version of “her” song soared to the top five of several pop charts, including #1 on the “Most Played In Juke Boxes” chart on May 14, 1955, and spending three weeks on top of that chart. So in 1958, not to be outdone, Etta put out her own cover version of “Dance With Me Henry“.
When her contract with Modern came up in 1960, she decided to sign with Leonard Chess’ namesake label, Chess Records, and shortly afterwards she got involved in a relationship with singer Harvey Fuqua, founder of the doo-wop group, The Moonglows.
For more about this lady, see our post: Etta James…