Bessie Smith sang the blues or “the devil’s music,” as some called it. She rose to fame during the bluesiest of eras, the 1920’s. Toughened by a poor childhood, Bessie’s hardscrabble life was interrupted by a few brief years in the sun.
During the 1920’s, Bessie signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and earned more money than any other black entertainer in America—in the world for that matter.
She lost her contract during The Depression, when musical tastes swung away from the blues. People were living the blues; they didn’t want to hear them, Bessie said. In 1937, with a comeback in her crosshairs, Bessie died in an auto accident on the dark, two-lane road from Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi.
The Blues Off-Broadway
Few people remember Bessie Smith now. Many never heard of her; some recall her name but can only recollect the ubiquitous sound of tinny recordings.
Get to know who Bessie Smith was at the Off-Broadway show, “The Devil’s Music: the Life and Blues of Bessie Smith,” at St Luke’s Theater (308 W 46th St).
Bessie is played by Miche Braden, herself a big girl, who makes a powerful impression. Braden wears a sweeping purple gown accessorized with diamonds and a fur stole. When she sings, she throws her hands back and her hips forward, a gesture that says “this is me and I am real.” Her voice makes a powerful impression too, but she doesn’t sound like the real Bessie. Maybe it’s the tin that’s missing.
The show takes place in a “buffet flat,” a gathering place where black musicians and friends hung out. Bessie’s loyal musicians are behind her as they party together on the last night of her life.
Between swigs of hooch and bluesy songs, Bessie tells a life’s worth of stories in bits and pieces. She makes no excuses or apologies for her drinking, her temper, or her love of both men and women.
Tough Bessie chokes up only when she speaks of her adopted son and how she lost custody of the boy. Bessie accepts her no-good husband Johnny Gee’s greed, violence and philandering as that‘s the way love is. But the boy’s love meant everything to her, even if she wasn’t around much to care for him.
Every time Bessie utters the word “death” during the course of the show, she cramps up in pain. Ms. Smith knew she wouldn’t see a ripe old age, but her physical reaction to the word made me wince at the obvious device.
St. Louis Blues
Bessie asks the audience (mostly rhetorically) if they’ve ever seen her movie. She answers “Yeah, well, neither did anyone else.” The movie she’s referring to is the 1929 Paramount classic, “St. Louis Blues.” In the film, her man Jimmy leaves her alone and broke. It then transitions to Bessie at a bar singing a beautiful version of the W.C. Handy song.
In this performance, recorded live on a soundstage, Bessie is joined by a band and a Grecian chorus of extras portraying customers at the bar. The result is unique and fascinating. This is the only recorded version of this particular arrangement, and it is hauntingly beautiful.
Braden’s reference to the long-forgotten film is followed by her excellent rendition of “St. Louis Blues,” performed mostly a few feet away from us (she moved among the audience frequently throughout the show).