Mamie Smith / Lucille Bogan 

The Best of Mamie Smith / The Best of Lucille Bogan

When Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" in 1920, it forever altered the face of the record industry. Before that time, the only recordings of African Americans doing their own vernacular music were limited to relatively smooth gospel performances, but "Crazy Blues" changed that overnight, selling upwards of a million copies to a market the fledging recording industry hadn't yet recognized. Every label scrambled to sign its own blues divas, and thus the careers of greater singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey got a huge boost from Mamie. Unfortunately the notes to this fine collection garble the history, but the music is terrific: "Crazy Blues" is more pop than blues, but it's still a great song, and Mamie really delivers it. She certainly stands the test of time, something our grandchildren might not say about the stuff topping today's charts.

Listeners who want their blues uncut and unprettified may want to start with Lucille Bogan. Addressing such subjects as homosexuality ("B.D. Woman's Blues") and prostitution ("Barbecue Blues" or the immortal "Tricks Ain't Walkin'"), Bogan constantly pushed the limits of what she could sneak past the censors. And all of it sounds tame compared to the XXX-rated "Shave 'Em Dry," a truly "underground" item cut in 1933 for the recording crew's amusement. Whether she was quite as wild as the songs suggest or not, Bogan's penchant for racy material shouldn't obscure her status as a superior vocalist -- worthy, as Dick Spottswood suggests in his excellent notes, of being remembered among the great classic blues divas.

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