About Us & the Dirty Blues

Fun, lively, with more than a touch of sexual innuendo, George and I are guaranteed to spice up any event.

We perform dirty blues from the likes of Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter & more. Our repertoire includes tunes like King Size Papa, Long Slidin’ Thing, If I Can’t Sell it (I’ll Keep Sitting on it). Let us share with you a piece of underground musical history that was incredibly popular in the 20s and 30s and has not seen the light of day since!

My Voice. Lost & Found.

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Some things you just take for granted. Me being able to sing was one. When I was young I was one of those kids that used to get up and sing in front of my parents’ friends to entertain them. When I was in High School I was chosen to be part of an exclusive group of singers to perform madrigals. For a couple of years, a dozen of us would go ‘on tour’ to Spain or Germany to perform in secondary schools in front of kids our own age. I loved singing those medieval songs almost as much as the mischief I made on those school trips.

 

I remember more than one occasion, stripping off my horrible costume, a tartan floor length A-line skirt (this was the late 70s) and matching waistcoat straight after a concert, and climbing out the hostel window with my friend Laurie so we could go in search of the young men who had come to see us perform. At University I was rejected from singing with the school’s jazz band because I wasn’t doing a music degree and that was the criteria for anyone who wanted to sing with the group. And in my twenties I did lots of session singing, eventually rejoining Laurie and her sister to perform complicated three-part harmonies that Laurie had devised as the band ‘The Dirty Blondes.’

We had a blast, singing at various pubs and clubs where I’m sure nobody really knew what to make of three twenty-something young women singing Andrew Sisters and Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes when punk was all the rage. By my late twenties, I’d moved on, teaming up with a pianist where we would perform jazz standards for hours in tiny wine bars across the city. Singing and music were in my blood. My mother had sung on the radio as a child. My uncle played drums for Janis Joplin (whom I met when I was 6) and a distant cousin was Stan Getz.

 

In 1988 I met my husband who was not musical but was a total music geek and photojournalist. Although he was obsessed with music, he could never understand why I would want to sing in some half-empty wine bar all evening for the price of a decent steak. So I stopped singing except for humming along to tunes on the radio or a Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald record. I gave birth to a couple of kids, my youngest of whom also inherited the family’s musical gene, and put my own singing years behind me. It took a trip to Cherry Grove, Fire Island, and a good ten years into my marriage, to re-awaken my voice. I’d gone there with a friend.

 

He was a born and bred New Yorker and, being August, he suggested we spend a week there to get away from the heat of the city. The place was populated almost exclusively with gay men, so much so that we quickly got a reputation as the only straight people on the Island. It was Friday night when we popped into a piano bar. One after another, guys got up to perform show tunes or jazz standards. They were mostly buff, young men who were taking a break from a Broadway show and so the bar had been set pretty high for me. I hadn’t sung for over a decade but I’d told my friend enough that he knew that with enough provocation, I’d want to have a go.

 

I’ll never forget that night, I went up to the pianist and said, “My Funny Valentine. Key of G.” He started playing and all those years of being silent just fell away. Suddenly the room grew quiet. When I’d finished, I went to sit down and lots of guys came up to me and asked me where I performed in the city so they could hear me sing again. “I don’t perform,” I said. “I haven’t sung for a decade.” I started to cry. I suppose I felt cheated. Although I still didn’t return to singing despite feeling validated that evening.

 

Then the menopause arrived, and along with hot flushes and sleepless nights, I lost my singing voice. When I tried to sing to songs on the radio, all that came out was a strange and unfamiliar croaky sound. I couldn’t hit the notes I used to and I couldn’t find my way around a tune. I grieved the loss of my voice much more than my sex drive or my waistline. Singing was just so much a part of me, I just never thought there would be a time when it was something I could no longer do. I stopped singing along to the radio because it was just too painful and derived pleasure listening on the sly to my youngest son and his beautiful, soulful voice as he sang along to R&B songs in his bedroom.

Over the last year, I decided to try something new, I dropped down an octave, sounding more like Barry White than Barbra Streisand. I wasn’t ready to let go of the singer in me and discovered I could still carry a tune despite not being able to hit the high notes. My 57th birthday present was three lessons with the fabulous vocal coach Nikki Lamborn and I’ve been going to her monthly ever since.

 

Returning to performing in my fifties has been a revelation and I’m loving every minute of it and of rediscovering the jazz songs from my youth and the bawdy blues from the likes of Bessie Smith and Lil Johnson, amongst others. That’s the thing about getting older. It’s about acceptance and celebrating that transition. I won’t lie. It’s been hard getting used to not being able to sing like I used to, but hey – I can still make a room go quiet. And I have a new voice. That is something to relish.

A History of the Dirty Blues

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Are you a good jelly roll baker? Do you need a little sugar in your bowl? And does anybody here want to try your cabbage?

 

These and a host of similar questions were put to American record-buyers in the 1920s and ’30s, when a craze for surprisingly daring and witty sex songs dominated the early days of recorded blues.

 

It was the big female stars of this era – women such as Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter – who made sure that the first blues records ever released were also some of the most sexually explicit in the history of popular music. This is documented in King Size Papas (& Mighty Tight Women), a documentary I produced for Radio 4.

 

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.

The original text and article was written by Paul Slade and can be found here.