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Back To Bessie
Bessie Smith was the greatest blues singer of all time; and her influence still permeates popular music though almost no one listens to her records. An appreciation by an eminent jazz singer.
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
When she drank, she drank too much, but she was a binge drinker who stayed sober for weeks at a time. She favored homemade corn liquor. “She was liking the bad stuff even when the good stuff was in,” Ruby said. “She didn’t trust anything with a seal on it.” Annoyed by her drinking, Jack made efforts to tour with her, punishing her carousing with scoldings and beatings.
Drunk or sober, she had a terrible temper. She would plunge into full-pitched verbal and physical battle with anyone—theater managers, chorus girls, total strangers—at the slightest provocation. She and Jack were a poor match. As Ruby said, “She was a strong woman with a beautiful constitution, and she loved a good time. Tack was so conservative.”
By 1924 race-record sales were slipping, but Bessie’s still sold well. Every couple of months she went to New York to record a few songs, usually blues, with piano or small-band accompaniment. Many of her classic twelve-bar blues have promising titles but little else to offer besides her fine singing. I realize that not every listener shares my need to hear a song that’s about something, but I believe Bessie did. I find the blues lyrics she herself wrote to be some of her most evocative and satisfying. Her best were inspired by her own experiences. She certainly spent enough nights behind bars for public drunkenness and brawls in dives and hotel rooms to write “Jail House Blues.” In it she gives a vivid picture of long days in prison, leavening her tale of woe with a sense of humor as she warns the warden: “You better stop your man from ticklin’ me under my chin /. . . ’cause if he keeps on ticklin’, I’m sure gonna take him on in.”
“Back Water Blues” was written after Bessie and Ruby had spent a night on tour in a building full of flood victims who begged her to sing about their plight. “Young Woman’s Blues,” “Thinking Blues,” and “Long Old Road” express and resolve her own periods of loneliness and despair with strong images and deeply moving lyrics.
In at least one song she was way ahead of her time. Albertson showed me a photocopy of an unrecorded blues lyric in her handwriting with the chorus “My hair is kinky, but my man don’t care / Any man’s a fool to want a woman for her hair.” It’s a very strong expression of racial pride for that era, and consistent with Bessie’s personality. She despised black people who tried to look or act “white” and she ridiculed the prevailing practice of hiring only light-skinned chorus girls.
Bessie knew other eminent blues singers of her day and was on good terms with most of them. She used their songs, but she seems to have been utterly uninterested in their performances. She seldom bought a record and never went to shows; she had the best voice, sold the most records, and drew the biggest crowds, and she apparently didn’t feel she had anything to learn from anyone.
In April 1924 she and her husband again stayed in Harlem with his mother while she recorded, and it was there that she became friendly with Ruby, Jack’s niece, who was twenty. Dazzled by Bessie’s success, Ruby wangled her way into the troupe. She learned the chorus girls’ routines from her aunt and helped her change in and out of her elaborate new gowns and headdresses between numbers.
Bessie was working hard and playing hard. If she was in a partying mood, she’d take Ruby out on the town. “I don’t know how that woman knew so many joints,” Ruby said. “We did everything we were big enough to do.” Sometimes Jack showed up, caught her, and beat her, but the moment he left she was off again. In Ruby’s words, “We did that all the time we was on the road—runnin’ from Jack.”
Bessie’s appetite for liquor wasn’t all she indulged. She began an affair with Agie Pitts, a teenage dancer in her show. (Ruby explained that Bessie chose young men because “they were the only ones who could keep up with her.”) Once Bessie found Ruby and Agie sitting alone in a dressing room. She flew into a jealous rage and beat her niece till Ruby’s screams brought the police. All three were arrested. “A night in jail was nothing to us,” Ruby told Albertson.
After the tour Bessie returned to Jack in Philadelphia, easing her conscience by buying him a two-thousand-dollar diamond ring. For years this was their pattern: Bessie would misbehave, Jack would catch her at it, she’d end up buying him an expensive present, and all would then be peaceful until the cycle began again.
That summer Bessie finally got to work with two accompanists who enhanced her music instead of encumbering it, the trombonist Charlie Green and the cornetist Joe Smith. When I commented to Albertson that never before or since had an artist of such greatness made so many records with such mediocre musicians, he readily agreed. “She had better bands on the road than in the studio,” he said. He believes she was probably so overworked that she simply let Frank Walker take care of all the recording details. Since the records he produced were hits, maybe she even thought he knew best.