CHIPPIE HILL SINGS THE BLUES
Jazz Archives #1000(10”)
Bertha “Chippie” Hill, accompanied by –
On first six selections: Lee Collins (tp) Lovie austin (on #1, 2, 5 and 6) and J. H. Shayne (on #3 and 4) (p) John Lindsay (b) Baby Dodds (drs) Chicago’ February, 1946
On #7 and 8: Montana Taylor (p) Almond Leonard (wbrd and kazoo) Chicago; April, 1946
Trouble in Mind Blues (2:46) (Richard M. Jones)
Careless Love (3:05)(traditional)
Charleston Blues (2:35) (Bertha Hill)
How Long Blues (2:28) (Leroy Carr)
Nobody Knows You when You’re Down and Out (2:54)(Jimmy Cox)
Around the Clock Blues (3:06) (traditional)
Worried Jailhouse Blues (2:47) (Bertha Hill)
Mistreatin’ Mr. Dupree (3:00) (Bertha Hill)
The middle of the 1940s could hardly, by any stretch of the imagination, be said to have been a fertile period for the blues. The great days of the 1920s were long past, and for a number of years the blues had been pretty thoroughly diluted, softened and commercialized.
Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith – foremost of the several rich-voiced women whose names had been synonymous with the greatness of this form of singing – were dead; most of their contemporaries, if still living, were long retired. But, as it turned out, it was still a bit too early to file away the authentic “classic” blues as nothing more than a completed segment of jazz history. There was still one more powerful burst of blues still to come; the return to action of the dynamic performer to be heard in this collection – CHIPPIE HILL.
These recordings were made when Bertha Hill first emerged from a seventeen-year-long retirement, early in 1946, to begin a three and a half year “second career” that was, if anything, more successful than her first. She was well over forty at the time, plump, matronly-looking and bespectacled, altogether so mild in appearance that her voluminous voice and the earthy lyrics she sang probably came as a considerable surprise to those who were then hearing her for the first time.
But of course there should have been nothing surprising about the fact that Chippie handled the traditional, low-down blues in exactly the manner to which they had once been accustomed. This had been her music ever since she had made her debut a Leroy’s , a once-famous Harlem night spot – at a time when (according to her own later-day estimate) she was only fourteen. James P. Johnson was in the same show, and Ethel Waters was its star. But with characteristic and fitting lack of modesty, Bertha Hill clamed in later years that Ethel “didn’t make no bigger hit than of Chippie.” Her nickname, incidentally, she said was given to her by Leroy: “because I was so young, he called me ‘Chippie’, and I was generally called that through the years.”
A few years later, Chippie – who had been born in South Carolina but brought up in New York – moved on to Chicago. It was a logical move for a young blues singer: the time was the ‘20s, and the Windy City was the hub of jazz activity. She quickly found an important niche for herself there. For a while she traveled with Ma Rainey’s celebrated Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, not only singing but also dancing as a chorus girl (“I was thinner then”); and she has recalled that among her Chicago jobs was one at the Palladium dance hall while a King Oliver band was playing there. There were among the best – men like pianist Richard M. Jones, and Louis Armstrong – and her sides were among the best known of their day, including Georgia Man and some of the numbers, like Trouble in Mind and Careless Love, that she recreated when she recorded again in the ‘40s.
At the end of the ‘20s, when the Depression was making its severe inroads into jazz and the great days of the blues were about at an end, Chippie retired from music and devoted her energies to raising her seven children. Her return to singing came during that mid-40s surge of re-awakened interest in traditional jazz forms that can probably be directly credited to the successful comeback made by Bunk Johnson. Specifically, Chippie’s personal “revival” was sparked by the records reissued here, which were originally made for Circle, as part of that label’s extensive program of rediscovering and setting down on wax long-neglected jazz artists of an earlier day. (Many such recordings have recently been made available on Riverside LPs.)
In 1947 Chippie made her in-person return, opening at New York’s Village Vanguard, and later having a long run at Jimmy Ryan’s on 52nd Street. Ryan’s, at that time, stood as an outpost on a street about evenly divided between clubs featuring bop musicians and those featuring strip-tease girls. In such a setting, Chippie’s gut-bucket easy of belting out a song sometimes seemed a symbol of the rugged will-to-survive of traditional jazz; she was decidedly in the minority, but (particularly on hot Summer nights, when everyone’s door was open) she quite literally made her presence felt. Finally, in May of 1950, she was killed in an automobile accident; only then could it accurately be said that the blues had had its day.
To the hyper-critical car, Chippie was a singer with limitations: her tone often harsh, her volume almost unvarying, and her repertoire largely confined to fast-paced and bouncing numbers. But this seems considerably less important than the rich vitality and sincerity, the excitement and impact of her singing. In this group of records, she appears to benefit greatly from being in the company of veteran musicians who know thoroughly the blues and its jazz, backgrounds. Lee Collins is one of the major trumpet men of jazz; like Baby Dodds and John Lindsay, he is New Orleans-trained and knows the art of supporting a blues singer. J. H. Shayne and Lovie Austin are very much pianists of the ‘20s – Lovie in particular was a most important and prolific accompanist and can be heard on a great many recordings by such singers as Ma Rainey and Ida Cox. And on the last two numbers here, Chippie’s rough and raucous tones are idealy matched by the drivingly unrefined piano of Montana Taylor, one of the near-legendary boogie woogie men of the ‘20s, who had been lost in obscurity for almost two decades before this record date. One number that Chippie sings here is firmly associated with another singer – Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out. This recording, which is preciously unissued, can serve as Chippie’s tribute to Bessie Smith, whom she always unhesitatingly named as the greatest. (“When Bessie died, I stayed drunk for a week. I still carry her picture with me,” she said in a 1948 interview.)
The evidence of these sides, added to that of her recordings of the ‘20s, would seem to establish that Bertha Hill belongs someplace near the top of the list, that she was a blues singer who, for sheer power and emotional impact, must be counted among the greats.
Among the many outstanding blues albums to be found in the Riverside Jazz Archives Series are:
The Great Blues Signers – Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Chippie Hill (RLP 1032)
Ma Rainey, Vol. 1, 2, 3 (RLPs 1003, 1016, 1045)
Ida Cox (RLP 1019)
Folk-Blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson (RLP 1014)
Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Penitentiary Blues (RLP 1053)
Backwoods Blues (RLP 1039)
Louis Armstrong Plays the Blues (RLP 1001)
King Oliver Plays the Blues (RLP 1007)
Mutt Carey Plays the Blues (RLP 1042)
Tommy Ladnier Plays the Blues (RLP 1044)
Notes by Orrin Keepnews
Tape-editing by J. Robert Mantler
Cover art by Robert J. Lee; typographical design by Gene Gogerty
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS
418 West 49th Street New York 19, N.Y.