published Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Dalton Roberts: An ode to the Empress of the Blues


by Dalton Roberts

Someone scolded me for not listing Bessie Smith in last week’s column on the best local singers and song interpreters. I have written often about Bessie and even wrote an entire CD titled “Tribute to Bessie Smith,” but I am always happy to honor her again.

Bessie recorded 160 songs for Columbia, and at one time was the highest-paid female entertainer in America, traveling to her gigs in her own railroad car outfitted in red velvet. Many blues historians call her the greatest blues singer ever.

She left Chattanooga when she was 18, joining a traveling singing and dancing troupe, and played Chattanooga only one time after she became famous. But when she was a little girl, she danced and sang on our streets with her older brother, Clarence, and her younger brother, Andrew. It was during this time here that she honed the skills that would bring her fame and fortune.

Few singers from here have made it as big as Bessie and Roland Hayes, but I am always pulling for those who get contracts with major labels. Martha Ann Brooks, a great songmaster herself, tells me Channing Wilson has just signed with EMI and is now writing with Guy Clark, one of today’s top songsmiths. Channing has the songs and the voice to make it big.

Jimmy Harris came very close. When Kelso Herston was top dog at United Artists in Nashville, he told me he had “signed a Chattanooga boy named Jimmy Harris.” Unfortunately, Kelso got fired and Jimmy fell through UA’s cracks. Jimmy definitely had the talent, but we are lucky that he has played most of his songs for us. He still plays several nights a week at The Palms.

If I listed the incredible individual songs that have been performed locally, Jimmy’s self-penned “The Old Man’s Mellow” would be among them. Saxophonist and jazz great Ed Leamon asked Jimmy to perform it at his funeral, and he did. Leamon was a local legend.

Most singers have a signature song like that, and I say the gospel song “My God Is Real” was the one for which Charlie “Peanut” Faircloth is most remembered. After a long and illustrious career as emcee of the first country music network show on Mutual Broadcasting, deejaying at several local and regional stations and playing many local venues with his own band, he spent his last years singing gospel songs in regional churches.

You haven’t heard “My God Is Real” if you never heard Peanut sing it.

Some other great song interpretations locally are Terry Brewer of the Home Brew Band with “Sunshine,” Nan McMillian with “The Bitter They Are, the Harder They Fall,” Money Swan and Delitha Bass with “The Fire Down Below,” Bubba Meeks with “You and Me,” Randall Smith with “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” Buck Turner with “The Waltz You Saved For Me,” J.C. Wilson with “This Little Piggy,” Rick Williams with “Desperado,” Kenny Brown with “The U Haul Tracks Are Healing Nicely in My Yard,” Larry Mason with “Walking the Dog,” Jerry Lee Gothard with “What a Way To Go,” and Benny Berry with “Mama’s Rocking Chair.”

Songs are so powerful. I remember songs more than voices and music. If every singer would concentrate on finding a great song to make his/her signature song, they would be remembered longer and more affectionately.

Email Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.

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