Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Victoria Spivey: Multitalented Blues and Jazz Songstress

Houston-born Victoria Spivey was a woman of many talents. She could sing, write songs, and play several instruments, among them the piano, the organ, and the ukulele. Though there was a hiatus in the 1950s, her recording career spans about five decades, from 1926, when she cut her first record, "Black Snake Blues," up until the 1970s. Fortunately for us, she was among the many blues performers who were rediscovered during the folk revival of the '50s and '60s, and she made quite a few recordings for her own Spivey Records label late in her career, including such interesting albums as Songs We Taught Your Mother (Alberta Hunter is also on this one) and The Queen and Her Knights, with Lonnie Johnson, Little Brother Montgomery, and Memphis Slim. Spivey influenced many performers in the '60s, among them Bob Dylan (who plays harmonica on one of her albums), Paul Butterfield, and Elvin Bishop, but her reputation as a blues singer rests primarily on the many fine recordings she committed to wax between the '20s and the '40s. On these, her attractive voice shows that she's been listening to both Bessie Smith and Annette Hanshaw, and, as is the case with the Empress, Spivey's brand of blues has a strong jazz component (great jazzmen like Henry Red Allen appear on some of her sides), and many of her records feature hot solos and risque lyrics.

The sexually suggestive nature of many of Spivey's lyrics shouldn't be surprising when we bear in mind that she came out of a '20s Houston scene that often forced performers to play hangouts of ill repute. In the late 1920s, before concentrating on a career as a recording artist, Spivey tried songwriting, but after moving to New York City, she soon became a regular in the studios of major labels such as Decca, Vocalion, and Victor. Her discs proved quite popular with the record-buying public, and this led to several roles in black musical revues. Spivey also found time to tour and record with bands led by Louis Armstrong, but at some point she decided to quit secular music, her successful recording career, and the small nightclubs where she was performing to concentrate on singing only religious material in church. No examples of this stage of her career seem to exist, but as mentioned, she went back into the recording studio quite often in the '60s and '70s before her death, which occurred on October 3, 1976 in New York. Some of her folk-boom albums (Songs We Taught Your Mother, The Blues Is Life) are available on CD, and luckily, the Document label has reissued her classic sides chronologically. A good sample of her '20s and '30s recordings is The Victoria Spivey Collection 1926-37 (Acrobat), a very recommendable two-disc introduction to her best work. Although she's perhaps not talked about as much as other classic blues singers, Victoria Spivey produced a highly consistent body of work that should satisfy both blues and jazz enthusiasts.

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