Record: Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings
Artist: Count Basie and Joe Williams
Released: Clef Records, 1955
If there's one thing that classic jazz has in common with modern hip-hop and rap it's that it was as common then as it is now for major artists to collaborate. My father's collection is full of records like this one, with two legends sharing the studio, apparently unafraid of being overshadowed by the other. Instead each elevates the other, especially when a gifted singer joins a renowned band leader.
In some of these collaborations we see the genius of Count Basie. I've already written about the record he recorded with Frank Sinatra, in which his band adjusted to Sinatra's pop-leaning style. Here, Basie accommodates Joe Williams, one of the great blues singers of the era.
The opening track, "Every Day (I Have the Blues)," is a negotiation. The record opens up with Basie's signature stride piano style, and then the horns join in, reminding us that this is one of the most powerful big bands in history. Once that's been established, Williams is welcomed in, and his trademark baritone voice parts the waters; within seconds a swing tune morphs into the blues.
Nobody loves me,
Nobody seems to care.
Speakin' of bad luck and trouble,
Well, you know I've had my share.
Although he's best known for singing the blues like that, there are other tracks on the album that are more upbeat ("Alright, Okay, You Win") or ask Williams to do a little crooning ("In the Evening"). His versatility, along with Basie's, is on display, and the result is a showcase for both legends. (There will be lots more from both men as this project continues.)
Depending on the version you find, this record could have as many as twelve tracks, with the final three recorded in 1956, but my father's album, released in 1955, has only nine, which remains mysterious to me.
One of my favorite things about this record is the slip case, which features cover art by David Stone Martin, an artist who designed covers for more than a hundred jazz albums in the 1950s and '60s. (Like Williams and Basie, we'll see Martin's work again.) On the back cover Basie and Williams, resplendent in suits that would still look sharp today, frame liner notes that are modest for the time, only six paragraphs.
But most interesting is something that you won't find on your album. In the upper right hand corner there's a price tag -- $3.98 -- that's survived sixty-seven years. My father bought this record from Hudson's, a landmark department store in Detroit. Once upon a time, Hudson's was the tallest department store in the world, and only slightly smaller by square footage than Macy's in New York City. My own memories of the store are hazy, but I remember shopping trips and lunch and Sander's with my mother, and when I learned to write in cursive in the third grade, I patterned the H in my first name after the stylized loopy version in the Hudson's logo rather than the standard H I saw on the chalkboard.
I was just a boy back then, but it's fun to imagine my father as a young man twenty years earlier, walking into the flagship store at the corner of Woodward and Gratiot and heading to the record counter, either down in the basement or up on the twelfth floor. After settling on this record, perhaps he paid with a five dollar bill, then used the change to get some lunch on the way out. There's no way to know if he might've taken the same elevator my mother and I did twenty years later or sat in the same booth at one of the restaurants, but this morning I listened to the record he bought that day, and that's a pretty cool thing.
Every Day (I Have the Blues)
Alright, Okay, You Win
In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)
Roll 'Em Pete
Teach Me Tonight
My Baby Upsets Me
Please Send Me Someone to Love