Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues – Chris Albertson

Chris Albertson studies the life, times and blues of Bessie Smith (1894 - 1937). In the 1920s, she was the most celebrated singer in blues because of her powerful, emotive voice and the decision of Columbia Records to market records on Okeh label to black people. Bessie Smith influenced jazz, gospel, and rock singers such as Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Janis Joplin.

Albertson was on the production team that assembled the influential set of Smith’s recordings in the early 1970s. For that reason, he is uniquely qualified to discuss her art. He also examined the roles and influence of gifted musicians such as Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman and Louis Armstrong. Smith’s interpretation of St. Louis Blues with Armstrong is considered by most critics to be one of finest recordings of the 1920s. One benefit of our digital age is that her recordings sound so clean, though some critics complain that the nuances of her voice are made too mellow. Decide for yourself – check out Put It Right Here for the sonics, the cool pictures, and her fundamental philosophy of life.

The author interviewed Ruby Walker, Bessie's niece, confidant, touring companion, and sometime punching bag. She tells a lot of blunt stories about Bessie Smith’s vibrant ways. Bessie Smith was a true artist in that she was a great entertainer, but she also had an artist’s rough “conventions be damned” approach to life that her fans admired, respected, and feared.  In our tolerant era, we can’t picture divas like Beyonce throwing piano stools at back-up singers or taking pistol shots at errant husbands like Bessie Smith did.  It’s a pity she died young at only 43, in a car accident. Smith’s grave near Philadelphia was unmarked until 1970, when Janis Joplin paid for a headstone (according to here).

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