Empress of the Blues is a compilation drawn from three LPs issued in the early 1970s by St. Louis native Olive Brown, who made her mark as a blues and jazz singer in her hometown, as well as in Detroit and Chicago, and was particularly associated with the traditional jazz scenes in those locales. Brown, who passed away in 1982 at the age of 60, was sometimes referred to as the “New Empress of the Blues,” but this collection, despite its title, certainly proves that she had a much broader stylistic range than her affinity for channeling Bessie Smith.
The compilation features all ten tracks that make up Olive Brown and her Blues Chasers (1973) on which she is accompanied by a quintet featuring pianist Mike Montgomery, trumpeter/trombonist John Trudell, clarinetist/saxophonist Ted Buckner, bassist Bill Bolle, and renowned drummer J.C. Heard. Four of the tracks are drawn from Smith's songbook (Aggravatin' Papa, Back Water Blues, Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer, and Empty Bed Blues), and Brown's versions feature a strong, emotive bravura that conjures the classic blues diva but also exhibit a brighter sense of swing that emerged from subsequent generations of jazz/blues singers. And, those influences are given overt nods in other selections, including Sweet Man and Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night (Ethel Waters); Sugar (Waters and Billie Holiday); 'Deed I Do (Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne); and That Old Feeling (Fitzgerald). The band locks in behind her and delivers tight, inventive solos. If anyone can add a swinging spark to an ensemble, it is Heard, an underrecognized jazz drum master. Montgomery truly shines in a duet on Back Water Blues.
Six additional tracks are drawn from Olive Brown Sings (1972), which was recorded live at the King Cotton Hotel in Memphis with backup from the jazz stride-style piano master Don Ewell and drummer Gardner Hitchcock. Brown seems to relish the loose, live setting, and she and Ewell swing in high gear on Louis Armstrong's Someday You'll Be Sorry. The pianist is featured on an enthralling solo performance of Beale Street Blues, and the singer and two accompanists cut loose on a spry, swinging version of the Smith-associated (although probably more widely known from Derek and the Dominos) Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out that brings Ella to mind more than Bessie. On the final verse of Am I Blue?. Brown name checks Holiday and then proceeds to alter her tone and phrasing to shape a striking imitation of Lady Day. The compilation concludes with one track from Struttin' with the Boll Weevil Jass Band. 'Bama Bound, a strippeddown, back-to-the-roots performance with Montgomery on piano and Frank Powers on clarinet. It's fortunate to have this CD reissue of Empress of the Blues to provide testimony to the artistry of Olive Brown, a voice in the tradition of blues/jazz divas that might otherwise have slipped through the cracks of history.Robert H. Cataliotti | OCTOBER 2019 | Living Blues Magazine