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The Traditional Delta and Country Blues

Laura Rucker

When the popular blues radio show Blues Before Sunrise chose pianist and singer Laura Rucker as the subject of a Valentine's Day tribute, the host expressed wonder at the singer's credits with both the country blues artist Blind Blake and the jazzy, slick, experimental, and urban pianist Earl Hines. "Anyone who makes that stretch gets my attention," the show's host commented. But close examination of the discographical depository of evidence makes it seem more like Rucker and her peers on the blues scene were almost trying to avoid attention, releasing recording sessions under pseudonyms and sometimes aping each other's styles just to throw off spies from record company legal departments. Fans of classic female blues vocalists have listened to sides by Jane Lucas and Hannah May, exchanging nods and winks in the insider knowledge that it is really Laura Rucker, cleverly disguised on the labels by the typesetter. Yet one will not find the recordings of either Lucas nor May in the discography below, because this theory appears to be a blues urban legend after all. Was Jane Lucas, also known as Kansas City Kitty, really Mozelle Alderson? Thankfully that is not our concern at present. Ruth Johnson, on the other hand was a pseudonym for Rucker. It gets worse. George Ramsey, who cut some vocal duets with Rucker, was actually Thomas A. Dorsey, better known as Georgia Tom. He also used the Ramsey identification when he cut vocal duets with Lucas, but that doesn't mean she was really Rucker. This game of who-am-I began in the recording studios in 1931, by which time was already a veteran of the Chicago club and recording scene. She had gigged with bandleader and trumpeter Big Ed Lewis on the Kansas City jazz scene in 1926. Her first sessions were in the last days of Paramount and resulted in four sides, including a duet with Georgia Tom Dorsey.

Another more intense spurt of releases came in the middle of that decade for Vocalion and Decca. Her 1935 version of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" was shelved at the time because it was felt to be too much an imitation of Fats Waller. One of her specialty numbers during this time was "Something's Wrong," with lyrics sure to offend gay activists: "If there's too much tenor in his talk, something's wrong." In 1939 she recorded for Bluebird as a vocalist with the Hines band, where her services at the keyboard were surely not needed. This is where her versatility becomes somewhat official, as record guides which label her as a blues singer on the earlier sides now refer to her as a jazz singer. Whatever it was, she worked regularly in clubs on the Chicago scene and was known for her willingness to play and sing requests from popular songs of the day as well as her regal appearance. Her mainstay status on the Chicago club scene continued through the '40s. Vocalist supreme Peggy Lee has recalled hearing Rucker sing with drummer Baby Dodds and has credited Rucker with the source of her famous interpretation of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It" from Rucker. In 1949, the singer provided the legendary Chicago pianist Claude McLin with his recording debut, a collaboration that made about as big a ripple as a pebble tossed into Lake Superior. This session of ballads and blues numbers was done for Aristocrat, which eventually became the recording dynasty of the Chess brothers. As a result, the tracks of Rucker with the Claude McLin Combo have been released on various anthologies of this label. Rucker obviously did not let her fingers atrophy whilst working behind piano man Hines, and is credited with the swinging and fluent piano on these late-'40s sessions. There is indeed versatility in this artist, but perhaps not to the extent suggested by the association with both Blake and Hines. A better understanding of the relationship with the former man is immediate on the Austrian Wolf collection, entitled Blind Blake: The Accompanist. It was Blake that was able to adopt his style to the singer on what were the great blind blues guitarist's final recording sessions in 1931, not the other way around.
by Eugene Chadbourne