AUSTIN Claire 1954

Claire Austin is one of the great blues singer of our time, in the classic tradition of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. She is a natural, her singing is effortless, her pitch is true, her tone is full and thrilling. But these things alone do not make a great blues singer. For the blues you must also have deeply felt convictions and the emotional maturity which comes with experience of life and love. These are the things which Claire reveals in her singing, and which she evokes from the simplest melody and lyric.

In trying to understand why the blues appeal to her so, Claire has done considerable thinking and self-analysis. Her childhood was not a happy one, and it is possible that the feelings of "frustration and rejection which the soul cannot accept" of those years were to make her deeply responsive to the essential emotional character of the blues when she heard them many years later.
Claire was born Augusta Johnson in Yakima, Washington, November 1918, and moved to Tacoma in 1926, then Seattle in 1931. Her interest in music began early. She studied piano and dancing, and in high school became interesred in drama. During her senior years, she sang alto in the school choir and first soprano in her church choir. She wanted to go to the University of Washington, but her father said no. So, with the end of school in June 1936, she thought on singing as a career, and haunted an agent's office until he booked her into The Oasis, a large nightclub on the edge of town. Her parents, who neither dranked nor smoked, and had never seen the inside of a night club, were horrified. But Claire persuaded them she could always quit if she didn't like the place.
The Oasis job lasted six weeks. The house band, led by pianist Gene Smith, was composed of young musicians who were interested in jazz, and with them Claire developed her natural feeling for improvisation. She sang at other clubs in the area for a while, returned to The Oasis for a 21-week stay, then continued singing in various clubs in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. During the early years of World War 2, she met Chuck Austin, who was playing drums in a club in Redding, California. They were married in Reno, and Chuck went into the army soon after.
For the next few years, Claire worked at clubs in Oakland, Cincinnati, Chicago and Louisville, close by various army camps at which Chuck was stationed. There were difficult times for Claire, trying to be near her husband, caring for her two children, and working to support the family. Finaly, she returned to Seattle, where her folks lived, for the birth of her third child, and to wait for Chuck's release from the army.
The post-war years of readjustement were not easy either. They moved to Sacramento, and Claire studied accounting, eventually getting a job with the State of California. With work, making a home, and caring for her three children, there was no time for a singing career. It was during this period, in 1947, she first heard a Bessie Smith record and first became interested in the blues as a form for her own singing. In 1947, for Mother's day, Chuck gave her an album of Bessie's records, which she took to playing as she did her housework.
So matters rested until one day in 1951 when she received a phone call from a friend who told her Turk Murphy's Jazz Band was at The Clayton Club in Sacramento and Turk was looking for a singer. Claire remembers, "I had never heard any music like that before. I sang some blues and later "Cakewalkin' babies". The bartender asked Chuck to sit in, which he did, and we had an extremly enjoyable evening". For the tremendous impact Claire's singing made on Turk's band, and the story of her appearance with him in San Francisco, see "The Turk Story Part 4, LP GTJ L-18" (maybe not that easy to find). This album contains the three sides she recorded with Turk in April 1952.
Since leaving Turk in 1952, to devote herself to her family, Claire has not appeared professionaly except for the recording session of the album "Claire Austin sings the blues with Kid Ory" in 1954. Good Time Jazz 10" LP.


Claire Austin vocal, Kid Ory Trombone, Don Ewell piano, Ed Garland bass, Minor Hall drums.

There is no hokum in the way Claire Austin sings. In the ten songs of "When your lover has gone", Claire proves herself a performer indeed, able to endow old songs with new meanings, to suffuse them with the directness of her own personality. Characteristically, she sings these songs simply, with no written arrangements -first the verse, then the choruses, with no self-assertive messing around with the tunes or the words. She tries only to extract from each line the maximum of meaning it can convey. And what she manages to extract remains a surprise from beginning to end.


Claire Austin vocal, Bob Scobey trumpet, Barney Kessel guitar, Stan Wrightsman piano, Morty Corb bass, Shelly Manne drums.

After the recording of "When your lover has gone", Claire went back home ! It is only in 1975 that we met her again, when she came back in the studio in Atlanta where she recorded "Memories of you" for George H. Buck who runs the "Audiophile" label in New Orleans. Most of the songs are ballads about love -remorseful references to lost love, and joyful celebrations of fulfilled love. Living every lyric, Claire laments with the former and revels with the latter. She sings them both with deeply felt conviction. This album is available on CD.

1 comment:

mook said...

So simple and lovely. Her voice is accompanied so beautifully by a band that doesn't try to overpower her.

Thanks Daniel.