Twice we’ve done columns that aspired to flesh out the voluminous repertoire of reeferated musics laid out from the earliest days of recorded sound and twice, you, dear reader, have asked for more. Here are a few choice nugs from my personal stash. (New suggestions are always welcome.)
BESSIE SMITH “Gimme a Pigfoot” (1933): Smith (1894-1937) was in many ways the female Louis Armstrong, a full-bodied, formidable blues singer with the agility to navigate the swing era. This song is a fun, visceral example of how she fused those styles to become the most potent singer of the 1930s and a key influence on almost all the singers who followed, starting with her greatest disciple …
ELLA FITZGERALD “When I Get Low I Get High” (1937): It was clear from her earliest years, in the first half of the 20th century, that Ella (1917-1996) had no real competition in terms of vocal dexterity. She was 20 when she recorded this tune with drummer Chick Webb and his orchestra, the band that dominated in the Swing Era from its base at the Savoy Ballroom. Webb’s merry band of music-makers took competition victories over Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Fletcher Henderson and, most famously, Benny Goodman. The drummer died young, in 1939; Ella, at 22 years of age, took over the band and transitioned into a crossover star for the next 50 years.
GENE KRUPA “I’m Feeling High and Happy” (1938): The photograph of Krupa (1909-1973) sweating through his suit while destroying a set of brushes in battle at the Savoy is an icon of the era. By that point, he was America’s first celebrity drummer. A year later, he’d start his own band, and this would be one of their first recordings. Krupa was a forceful advocate for integration of jazz bands, first with the Goodman small-groups and then with his own bands. He didn’t even smoke that much, but you couldn’t tell that from his style, which embodied the hipster aesthetic that led directly into bebop and the beat generation. A valet slipped a cache of pre-rolled joints in his jacket pocket in January 1943, precipitating the first notable celebrity drug bust.
JULIA LEE “Marijuana” (1947): Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow wrote this in 1934, and it was first recorded by Dave Harman later that year, but it’s this version that endures. Lee (1902-1958) was another great singer directly influenced by Bessie Smith, and that comes through nicely here. She recorded the song in the same years as “Snatch and Grab It,” which should really be the Trump2020 theme song.
AEROSMITH “Reefer Head Woman” (1979): It took me a long time to really appreciate what the young Aerosmith brought to the table. “Walk This Way” is still a perfect song, but it was the Breeders’ cover of “Lord of the Thighs” that precipitated a deep-dive, and oh, what fun it’s been. For all we know, both songs could be about the same person. Wouldn’t that be a book worth reading?