Songwriter/pianist/vocalist Leroy Carr, whose two-disc CD set is one of the highlights of the new Roots N' Blues Series, was one of the first recording artists to make full use of the new electric microphone. With a crooning style akin to the coming generation of jazz singers, he cut 190 tunes in his brief career (1928 to 1935), including "How Long, How Long Blues" and "Blues Before Sunrise." Guitarist Scrapper Blackwell, Carr's partner, has a jazzy, single-note style that weaves leads and counter-melodies around Carr's relaxed piano and intimate singing.
In the 1920s, African American and white hillbilly string bands shared the same repertoire and similar picking styles. The Mississippi Sheiks -- Walter Vinson (guitar and vocals), Lonnie Chatman (fiddle) and Bo Chatman (fiddle and vocals) -- were the most popular black string band of the time, with an eclectic range that included country blues ("Sittin' on Top of the World"), jazz ("The Jazz Fiddler"), ragtime and hokum (marked by sly double entendres and dance tunes that combined white and black folk picking styles), with Lonnie Chatman's inventive fiddling the main attraction.
Lucille Bogan, a.k.a. Bessie Jackson, was a drinking, drug-taking, lesbian roughneck -- one of the original gangstas, by her own account. Bogan's rowdy style, full of sexual tension and innuendo, was more "street" than country, perfectly complemented by piano player Walter Roland's basic, driving rhythms. "Shave 'em Dry" and "Til the Cows Come Home," her most famous songs, were cut in 1935, and although never officially released, became legendary underground hits with raw sexual images that can stand up against any X-rated rapper. When she sings "I'm talkin' about fuckin' . . . ," she delivers.
Mamie Smith was the first African-American woman to cut a record, laying the groundwork for Bessie Smith and creating the blues boom of the 1920s. Her second single with her band the Jazz Hounds, "Crazy Blues," sold at least a million copies, the first hit by a black artist. Smith's band combines elements of Dixieland and proto-jazz, and with sidemen like Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins wailing behind her, Smith's big voice comes through full of sass and power -- the first pop-music diva in full force.