WHEN THE BLUES were first recorded in the 1920s, the most prominent stars were all women: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox, Ethel Waters, Victoria Spivey and others. With the onset of the Great Depression, however, their popularity suddenly evaporated; their rural audience shifted to male country blues singers and their urban audience migrated to jazz dance bands. The "Classic" era of female blues singers -- as scholars call it -- was stopped dead in its tracks.
There were lingering traces of the tradition, of course. Wallace and Spivey lived long enough to be rediscovered; Memphis Minnie was popular in the '30s; Big Mama Thornton and Koko Taylor excelled in the post-war urban blues field; and Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt made the female wailer a key figure in the blues-rock field. Today both older women making comebacks and younger women making entrances are revitalizing the institution of the female blues singer.
Jeannie & Jimmy Cheatham and the Sweet Baby Blues Band "Luv in the Afternoon" (Concord Records; P.O. Box 845, Concord, CA 94522). One of last year's best blues albums was this gem from San Diego's veteran married team. Jeannie plays the piano and sings with a relaxed assurance that only underscores her sassy, slinky appeal. She can shout and growl with the best of them when she wants to, but she also knows how to caress a melody or understate a seductive passage. Jimmy plays bass trombone -- lending a Dixieland feel to these blues -- and he does the arrangements. Not only is the band full of all-stars such as bassist Red Callender, clarinetist Jimmy Noone and trumpeter Snooky Young, but they have played together often enough to have a cohesive sense of ensemble. The special guest this time is Gatemouth Brown, whose eclecticism fits the situation, and the well-chosen material includes established standards by Johnny Mercer, Muddy Waters, Joe Turner and Danny Barker as well as could-be standards by the Cheathams.
Evelyn McGee Stone "It's My Time" (Atlantic). Jesse Stone (a k a Charles Calhoun) is one of the greatest songwriters in the history of rhythm & blues; he wrote such standards as "Shake, Rattle & Roll," "Money Honey" and "Don't Let Go." His wife, Evelyn McGee, sang with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm in the 1940s. Now, in a welcome comeback for both of them, Jesse Stone has composed, arranged and produced 10 of the 12 songs on Evelyn's new album. The numbers are sophisticated cabaret blues in the manner of the songs Leiber & Stoller wrote for Peggy Lee; the melodies are seductive and the lyrics clever even if the rhythms are restrained. Now in her sixties, Evelyn McGee has a very light voice, but her phrasing is as elegant and knowing as ever.
Valerie Wellington "Million Dollar $ecret" (Rooster Blues Records; 232 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale, MS 38614). Wellington (who played Big Maybelle the blues singer in the movie "Great Balls of Fire") recorded this album in 1983 when she was 23, but it only received national distribution (with two CD bonus tracks) last year. It remains a remarkable document of a terrific voice singing the Chicago blues as if they were the most modern, urgent music in the world. With more finesse than Koko Taylor and more power than Jeannie Cheatham, Wellington sings a mix of blues classics and her own originals (which stand up surprisingly well). She's backed up an all-star cast of Chicago bluesmen: pianist Sunnyland Slim, guitarist Johnny Littlejohn, harpist Billy Branch and others.
Kathy Hart & the Bluestars "Tonight I Want It All" (Biograph Records; P.O. Box 369, Canaan, NY 12029). Hart was just 17 when she ran away from home in Detroit and landed on Chicago's South Side where she befriended the local blues musicians. She wound up in Seattle, where she put together this quintet of the city's top blues musicians. The players are solid and the seven all-original songs are fun (though unlikely to ever be recorded again). The main attraction is Hart's lung power, which blasts out every number with impressive authority. If she could find some finesse to go with that power, she'd really have something.
Li'l Ronnie & the Blue Beats "There's a Party Goin' On!" (Short Stack Records; P.O. Box 11377, Richmond, VA 23230). Li'l Ronnie Owens is the male singer and harmonica whiz in this Richmond blues quintet, but soprano Robyn Stanley is the group's commanding voice. Like Hart, she has more power than finesse, but Stanley's approach fits well with this bar band's brassily aggressive approach to almost every song. The blues-rock tendency to overstate every harmonica fill and every verbal joke goes over a lot better in a beer joint, however, than it does on the stereo. This band has some talented singers and players, but their lack of restraint makes the listener feel as if he weren't invited to the party.