22 March 2013


Click on THIS VIDEO. It is concise (only 30 bars in total) and therefore simple for musicians to learn and memorise. It has a good, strong, easily-singable melody and a very pleasant down-the-ladder harmonic progression (plus The Sunshine Chord Sequence at the end). Bars 7 and 8 of the Chorus can be played as a 'Break' - to be taken either by a singer or by a member of the band; and Bars 17 and 18 of the Chorus are an appealing 'Tag'. For all these reasons, I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl is a very good tune for jazz bands to have in their repertoire.

I have written before about the amazing Dick Baker who has spent decades researching the origins and histories of tunes played by traditional jazz bands. He now has information about nearly 4000 tunes on his website, which runs to over 400 pages of closely-typed information: CLICK HERE; and then go to Stomp Off Records Project.

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:

Ivan, In my quest to update and improve the Stomp Off index, I went hunting for this on a trip to the Library of Congress in January. The composers were actually Dally Small, Clarence Williams and J. Tim Brymn, and the filed copyright was "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl." The original lead sheet, possibly in Clarence Williams's handwriting, is attached. The copyright as printed in the book reads I need a little sugar in my bowl words and melody by C. Williams, Dally Small and J. T. Brymn. © 1 c. Jan. 14, 1932; E unp. 50141; Clarence Williams music pub. co., inc., New York. The record label, alas, screwed things up a bit. The initial "I" was dropped (but it's common for record companies to shorten, streamline, or otherwise change titles for their labels), but the composer credit on the Columbia 14634-D label is Williams, Byrne [or poss. Byrns] and Small. There WAS a composer named W. A. D. "Danny" Small, but this evidently isn't that guy.

Here is the leadsheet Dick discovered. What is interesting about it? It is dated (rubber stamp) '1932'. The composers are given as stated by Dick. The tune is set in the key of Ab, with a melody line and no chords for the Chorus and a melody line and a few hints at chords for the Verse. The Verse has 16 bars. The Chorus has 18 bars (really 16 bars plus a two-bar tag).

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.

When Tuba Skinny recorded the song (on their first CD, in May 2009), they based their performance on the Bessie Smith version, including the 12-bar Verse and using the key of F.

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.