Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bessie Smith: The Empress of the Blues

Earlier this year, there was an auction of Lena Horne's estate. As I checked out the late Ms. Horne's belongings at Doyle New York, I could not help but notice this print of Bessie Smith getting down in front of a grand piano. I submitted an absentee bid for the piece but unfortunately did not win. No Bessie Smith. No Lena Horne.

So, of course when I saw that The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith was playing Off Broadway, I knew I had to see it. I had to have my Bessie Smith fix.

Born dirt poor in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the 1890s, Bessie Smith became the Empress of Blues. She was one of the most famous singers of the 1920s and recorded some 160 tunes while signed to Columbia Records "race" unit. An alcoholic despite Prohibition and at 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, Bessie Smith played hard, drank hard, lived hard and unfortunately died hard at the age of 43 in a car accident.

Despite being overcharged at the TKTS Booth (I was charged full price for a rear orchestra seat), not being able to fully see the stage and the performance, and then sitting next to a woman who obviously thought she was at a clap along not an Off Broadway show, I could see (better yet clearly hear) that Miche Braden was doing a wonderful job playing the drunken talented almost larger than life Bessie Smith at the St. Luke Theatre.

However, at 80 short minutes in an uncomfortable theater, while funny and entertaining, The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is merely a teaser and does not do justice to the short but prolific life of this amazing "too black" blues singer.

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