Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Drunken Brilliant Bessie

I'm reading Studs Terkel's Giants of Jazz, and his section on Bessie Smith mentions a 1929 short with her doing Saint Louis Blues. It's on YouTube. I love how the bar here is transformed by Warner Brothers into something akin to a 1920s bourgeois Black church. Is it blues? Is it gospel? Is it a show tune? You decide. Yet, through all the schmaltz of Hollywood, her greatness shines through.

Orphaned at 9, Smith performed in the streets as a child to earn money. Ma Rainey, the first great woman blues singer, took Smith under her wing when she was just 12.
Constantly, the older woman was teaching her the subtle art of blues singing. Tricks and techniques. How to turn a phrase. "Make one line go a long way Bessie. ... Just don't sing a word straight; make it your word girl. ... Let your soul do the singin'."
Her 1923 Down Hearted Blues sold more than 2 million copies that year and was purchased mostly by poor Blacks. By the mid-twenties, Smith was knocking back gin by the tumbler. The Warner Brothers film came several years into her reputation for unreliability. She was still brilliant, when she showed up. Bookings became sparse, and the clubs more rough. At some points, she was reduced to mammy roles on the vaudeville circuit. In 1937, she was killed in a car accident. While her birthdate remains unclear, she died at either 37 or 42.


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