Dick has been tracing the origins of I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl, the song made famous by Bessie Smith and - more recently - brilliantly revived by Tuba Skinny and their fine singer Erika Lewis.
Dick sent me an email:
The 16-bar Verse is typical of its time - not specially interesting melodically, simple and with a repeated phrase, and ending with a dominant 7th to lead into the Chorus.
What I find strange is that Bessie Smith recorded it (in a musically very good version) in 1931; and yet the copyright manuscript (not such good music - especially the Verse) is dated 1932. I would have expected it to be the other way round.
Bessie Smith sang a shorter (12-bar) verse which is better than the 16-bar Verse in the manuscript.
Turning to the Chorus, Bessie's version is very close to the manuscript version of the melody.
Bessie, by the way, sang the song in the key of F, though the manuscript is in Ab.
Here are the lyrics Dick Baker discovered. Bessie Smith kept close to the first three lines of the Verse, but scrapped the remaining three, replacing them with one line (thereby reducing the Verse to 12 bars). With regard to the Chorus, Bessie pretty well kept the words as in the manuscript, though she slightly amended a couple of phrases.
Bessie then went on to sing a second Chorus (not typed into the manuscript above). This second Chorus was based on the first, but with cruder metaphors.
I'm pleased Tuba Skinny's version omits Bessie's second Chorus altogether. Erika Lewis sings the Verse and first Chorus only, following Bessie Smith but with a little toning down of the language, conveying a mood rather than archness. And Tuba Skinny abbreviates the title even further to Need a Little Sugar.
Writers of jazz history books in the past used to snigger like schoolboys at the 'innuendos' in the lyrics of songs performed by the likes of Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey and Lucille Bogan. (In England, we had the songs of George Formby: their 'cheekiness' was fashionable at one time.) But we live in an age when people are neither amused nor shocked by the metaphors used; and today there is little appetite for this kind of verbal humour.
So, regardless of the lyrics, let us value this tune for its conveying of mood, its conciseness, its simplicity, its strong melody, its harmonic progression, its 'Break' and its 'Tag'.
Long before I received the photocopy of the manuscript above from Dick Baker, I did my best to pick the tune out by ear. This is the 'Need a Little Sugar' leadsheet that I came up with (as in the recordings: 12-bar verse and an 18-bar chorus). It's good enough for me.