Friday 3 January 2014

Sweet Emma and a New Orleans Mystery

Sweet Emma, otherwise Emma Barrett, was a powerhouse pianist and affectless singer from old New Orleans. A recent find, New Orleans’ Sweet Emma And Her Preservation Jazz Hall Band (Preservation Hall, VPS-2), has, with one bound, just joined Echoes From New Orleans (Bunk Johnson et al: Storyville 670 203) and Bille and Dede Pierce, New Orleans: The Living Legends (Riverside RLP 370), not to mention Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines (Philips BBL 7046), as defining statements of the miracle of New Orleans (trad jazz division).  

Sweet Emma! What a performer! Immediate, direct, indomitable, and with a hint of defiance. This, doubtless directed at the ones who patronised her because of her unconventional looks - she was slouchy and skinny with expressive features and literally tied bells to her garter - in a city dedicated to hedonism. Whilst Emma embodies the pleasure principle in music, and, indeed, in existence, it didn’t prevent her from essaying a desperately vulnerable and moving ‘Closer Walk With Thee’. 

New Orleans’ Sweet Emma And Her Preservation Jazz Hall Band is wonderful, and unreservedly recommended to anyone keen to go back to the source of the music, away from all those hearty revival copycats. It swings with exuberance. 

But, and this is what I’m leading up to, my copy is signed on the back not by Sweet Emma and band but by a later aggregation of New Orleans musicians. I vaguely recognise some of the names, and a little research on Google has fleshed out some gaps in my knowledge. 

Among the more legible of the autographs, Chester Jones, played drums with the Eureka Brass Band, and Jeanette Kimball is a doyenne of New Orleans pianists, maintaining the New Orleans tradition of leaders recruiting femme pianists (see Lil Armstrong and, indeed, Emma Barrett herself). Louis Nelson, a trombonist, and Joe ‘Cornbread’ Thomas, a reed player and vocalist, were old-timers active in New Orleans up until the seventies. 

This just about exhausts my sleuthing and leaves two signatures unaccounted for. James ‘something-or-other’ Boaz (?) and the dominant scrawl on the centre right vertical. This latter is too flamboyant to be understood, which was also the fate of many a New Orleans jazzman. 

Can anyone help? 

Further viewing:


  1. I think almost certainly it's the line-up of a later version of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which justifies too, the choice of Sweet Emma and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to scrawl on, although none of the signatures match the players on the record. Glad we solved that mystery.

  2. Hi there - i also have a signed copy of this album. It was signed in 1978. The flamboyant signature you mention is also on my signed copy, but none of the other signatures are. I am trying to work out who they all are

  3. Did some more research! The signature is Alfred Lewis (Father Al). See

  4. Thanks, Anonymous, for definitively clearing up a New Orleans mystery!

    Now I see that the Sweet Emma has a companion volume (same cover shot, different artists; consecutive catalogue numbers), I shall never rest contented until I track VPS-3 down.

    Alfred Lewis is a cert for the big illegible signature, more dominant and flamboyant on Sweet Emma than on Billie and DeDe. Certainly too, ‘James something-or-other Boaz’ (my early lame attempt at deciphering) is ‘James Prevost Bass’. Prevost played bass with two of the other signatories (Jeanette Kimball and Chester Jones) in the Sammy Rimington Quintet in the early 80s. And, without checking everybody’s dates, I assume that all were living and active in the late 70s/early 80s, which makes a date of around 1979 for the signing about right.

    My Sweet Emma has Al Lewis and Jeanette Kimball in common with the eBay Billie and DeDe. I notice the seller is based in Winchester, Tennessee. I picked up Sweet Emma in Manchester, England.

  5. Have a signed copy as well. Appears to be signed by Sweet Emma.

  6. Ryan, Thanks for the comment and sorry for the tardy reply (I rarely blog these days). A Sweet Emma signature on a Sweet Emma LP, eh? How I wish my life was that simple!


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