Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Try a Little Tenderness

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Try a Little Tenderness

Article excerpt

Credit: Kate Chisholm

A rustle of paper as the sleeve is removed. A clunk and click as the needle arm is swung across. The needle hits the vinyl, bringing it to life. At first there's a lot of crackling in the ether. Then at last the music begins. A sultry saxophone. A few notes on the guitar, slow, low and relaxed. At last the voice enters.

It's not at all what you would expect from that swingband opening. The voice is strong, unmelodic, harsh almost, but so passionate you're drawn in straight away. We're told it's Little Miss Cornshucks. She's singing a version of 'Try a little tenderness' that sounds just as good, if not better, than Otis Redding's amazing version from 1966. Who is she? You might well ask. Salena Godden went in search of her and ended up in Chicago, as we found out on Tuesday morning on Radio 4 in Try a Little Tenderness: The Lost Legacy of Little Miss Cornshucks (vividly produced by Rebecca Maxted).

Little Miss Cornshucks recorded the song in 1951 (with Coral records) long before Otis Redding (or even Aretha Franklin) and was a big hit, especially in Chicago at the Club DeLisa, but who knows her now? She was born Mildred Cummings in May 1923 in Dayton, Ohio, and brought up poor but encouraged to sing by her parents. She makes 'Try a little tenderness' completely her own by changing the lyrics from those you might have heard sung by Otis. Little Miss Cornshucks makes the song personal, as if it's her own story she's telling.

'I may be weary, Women do get weary, Wearing the same shabby dress...' She sings straight from the heart, and gives us the woman's perspective, in stark contrast to Otis Redding. It's a pure transmission of feeling, nothing conjured up about it, or theatrical. She's singing of what she knows. On stage at the Club DeLisa she added to the pathos by turning up in a shabby dress and walking on stage barefoot (eat your heart out, Sandie Shaw).

What makes her performance so compelling is the way she phrases each word, each line. It's such an incredibly simple performance, no decoration, no added effect; the line is pure, immediate, the meaning of each and every word brought home. Ahmet Ertegun, the man behind Atlantic Records, who promoted so many black singers, declared that Little Miss Cornshucks was 'the best blues singer he had ever heard'. So why did she never have the big audience, or big money, she deserved? …

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