In music, presentation is everything and the more controversial, the better. Lucille Bogan knew this and used it to her advantage. She wrote and sang songs with down and dirty images of the lives of Southern blacks and her only concessions to subject matter were the euphemisms it took to get the records published. She recorded under her own name for years on Gennett and Brunswick labels, but it wasn't until her tracks were re-released under the discount ARC label that her career really took off. For whatever reason, ARC gave her the nom de record "Bessie Jackson" (likely to encourage confusion with superstar Bessie Smith), and then continued to record Bogan under the Jackson moniker for subsequent sessions. All of the tracks on the new Legacy release,
Shave 'Em Dry: The Best of Lucille Bogan, are from the Jackson period and were released between 1933 and 1935.
It was during this time that Bogan/Jackson was teamed with Walter Roland on piano. The two make such a great team on
Shave 'Em Dry that it's no wonder they made so many records together; they obviously got along very well and even inspired each other to improvisational heights. Roland, in addition to his piano skills, plays guitar and even sings lead on a couple of tracks.
Neither Bogan nor Roland were afraid of singing about sex and
Shave 'Em Dry is rife with fabulously written tales of the oldest form of recreation. Titles like "Skin Game Blues," "Man Stealer Blues," and "Reckless Woman" are pretty up front with their sentiments, but also included are several titles with a more euphemistic view of those of the entrepreneurial sway: "Barbecue Bess" ("if you want my meat, come to my house at twelve"), "Stew Meat Blues" ("I got good stew, and it's got to be sold"), and "Groceries on the Shelf" ("My name is Piggly Wiggly and...you can help yourself"). She also wrote a song lauding "B.D. [bull dyke] women" for their ability to shun those "low down and dirty" men. (But sex wasn't all that was on Bogan's mind: see "Drinking Blues" and "Baking Powder Blues" for examples of other popular pasttimes.)
Three of the twenty tracks on
Shave 'Em Dry are recently uncovered "test recordings" that have never before seen release. According to the liner notes by Dick Spottswood, Bogan and Roland were simply having fun in the studio and, in my opinion, trying to see just how blue they could get. Most notable is Roland's raunchy revamping of the title track, this time called "I'm Gonna Shave You Dry," but the alternate recordings of "Shave 'em Dry" and "Till the Cows Come Home" are certainly worth a few listens; they more than justify the Parental Advisory sticker on the front of the CD.
Every track on
Shave 'Em Dry is a winner. Bogan's multi-faceted voice is entrancing and familiar. Combine that with Roland's rolling (if seemingly limited) piano style, and you have a collection of bawdy foot-tapping tunes. If there were justice in the music world, the name Lucille Bogan would be as famous as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and this release is Legacy's way of adding another opportunity for that to happen. So send the kids to bed (they'll only get confused, anyway) and put this on the changer for a look back at a deeper history of the blues. A few crackles may remain in the sound quality, but that only lends authenticity to this historic release.
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on
The Green Man Review. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.
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