Recorded blues was born with Mamie Smith’s 1920 song Crazy Blues, which sold in huge numbers to the black migrants fleeing the South for new factory jobs in the northern cities. Soon, every label had its own specialist “race” imprint, selling records by black performers to an almost exclusively black audience.
Many of the singers had a background in vaudeville and this, combined with the white labels’ fondness for comic minstrel numbers, produced a flood of joky sex songs. Others got their start in the brothels of gangster-era Chicago, where similar songs were used to keep the punters entertained while they waited for their favourite girl.
Alberta Hunter began her career in just that setting, and continued working the clubs of Chicago until one fateful night at the Burnham Inn.
The lights went out in the middle of her set there, a shot was heard, and, when the lights came back on, Hunter had a dead man at her feet. He’d been shot by a gangster rival, making this the third Chicago club Hunter had played to be closed after a murder on the premises. She left the city for New York.
Enormous numbers of sex songs were released in the ’20s, but the manners of the time meant sex could seldom be discussed directly, so black slang was used to preserve a veneer of respectability.
Food metaphors were always popular, as in Lonnie Johnson’s He’s A Jelly Roll Baker, Lil Johnson’s Sam The Hot Dog Man and Maggie Jones’s Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage? Anything sweet like jelly roll – or jam roll as we’d call it – was used to describe the sweet pastime of sex and as cash, too, was sweet to have, the slang term for money (“cabbage”) was similarly employed.
The rise of radio in the late ’20s hit record sales hard, so labels responded by making their blues discs dirtier than ever. This was one segment of the market where they knew radio could not compete.
“My man taught me a lesson he never taught before,” Bessie Smith confides in 1928’s Empty Bed Blues. “When he got through teachin’ me, from my elbow down was sore”.
By 1935, Lucille Bogan was recording her famously filthy version of Shave ‘Em Dry, drunk as a skunk in the studio. It remained too obscene to be released for 50 years, and is still all but unbroadcastable.
After the Second World War, the musical fashion shifted from basic blues to hard-driving R&B, but the suggestive subject matter stayed in place and so did the humour. Records such as Julia Lee’s King Size Papa (1948) and the Swallows’ It Ain’t the Meat (It’s the Motion) from 1951 were direct precursors of the hip-swinging suggestiveness of Elvis Presley and the template for rock and roll that followed.
It was only when Presley introduced the blues to white teenagers in 1954 that a moral panic ensued and the explicit lyrics were finally removed.
- ‘King Size Papas (& Mighty Tight Women)’ is on Radio 4 at 10.30am on Sat.