Back To Bessie

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Rap does outsell all other CDs, but a few ballads still break into the top forty, usually pop-soul songs by female artists with wide vocal ranges and impressive technical virtuosity. I hear in their singing all the vocal effects that Bessie pioneered—growls, swoops, fills, and multiple notes on one word—but without her discretion, sincerity, and substance. It’s not unusual for a performance of a current pop ballad to consist of little more than the calculated and skillful execution of these vocal effects and for an audience to respond to them as if they were revelations of spontaneous emotion. Primitive as Bessie’s records may sound to today’s ears, they still give both singers and audiences much to learn.

There’s surprisingly little interest in Bessie’s music even among jazz singers and musicians, who usually know little more about her than her most famous song, “St. Louis Blues.” In separate blindfold tests, neither Sarah Vaughan nor Anita O’Day even recognized Bessie’s voice. Vaughan, asked to rate “Young Woman’s Blues,” said, “I’ve always wanted to find out what people see in this kind of thing. I don’t get it. No stars.”

In top-forty pop-soul songs, I hear all the vocal effects she pioneered with none of her sincerity and substance.

When I moved from Rome to London in the 1970s and began singing in pubs and clubs, I found only one pianist who wanted to perform Bessie’s songs with me, and his interest wasn’t in her but in the stride piano of her best accompanist, James P. Johnson. In the 1980s, when I came to New York, I dropped all Bessie Smith numbers from my repertoire, leaving them to singers there who specialized in urban blues. Twelve years later I still hadn’t heard a single performer even mention her name, and I slipped “I Ain’t Coin Play Second Fiddle” into one of my shows. My musicians were reluctant to play old-style jazz—they found the 1920s time-feel stiff and the harmonies corny—but once they heard the audience laugh and cheer, they were as won over as I had been that winter in Rome, when I finally gave her music a real chance.

Today I wouldn’t think of giving a performance without at least one Bessie Smith number, and I’m as amused as the audience at the bigger, gruffer voice and swaggering stance that her songs bring out in me. I’m sure she’d cuss me out and knock me flat if she heard me stealing her stuff, but my goal is to get her music into the public’s ears. Only recently a young woman came up to me after a concert and said, “I think I could really get into Betsy Smith. Does she have any CDs out?”

The centennial of Bessie’s birth, 1994, passed unnoticed by the national press, though the BBC and National Public Radio both broadcast radio tributes. Last year NPR devoted an hour in its Jazz Profiles series to her life and work. Her mischievous smile beams out from a sheet of colorful twenty-nine-cent stamps, part of a series on legendary blues and jazz singers. Fourteen years ago Chattanooga, her birthplace, added the Bessie Smith Strut to its activities at the annual River Bend Festival, and Bessie Smith Hall, a museum and performance facility, opened there in February 1996. The Clarksdale Hospital where she died is now a hotel, her room usually occupied by European and Japanese fans. Her tombstone in Sharon Hill was placed thirty-three years late, but as the century draws to a close, its inscription still rings true: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”

The eminent black playwright August Wilson said in a recent interview that when he heard his first Bessie Smith record, he thought, “This is mine. This really belongs to me.” I feel exactly the same way, and so, I imagine, do her Danish biographer and the tourists who cross oceans to visit the room she died in. This great artist belongs to everyone who responds to her, and transcends all boundaries of race, nationality, generation, and category. Her work is available, accessible, and life-enriching. For maximum benefit, the beginning listener is advised to sing along with her as loudly as possible on such timeless lines as “I’m a red hot woman, full of flamin’ youth,” “Mr. Rich Man, Mr. Rich Man, open up your heart and mind,” and “It’s a long old road / But I know I’m gonna find the end.”

BESSIE SMITH ON CD