Back To Bessie

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In the early 1930s theaters she had once filled were closing down, and after nine years Columbia dropped her.

As it became clear that vaudeville was on its way out, white performers looked to Hollywood and radio for work, but those doors were still closed to blacks. Bessie kept going, but her theater fee had dropped by 50 percent. She sold the railroad car, gave up her elaborate costumes and wigs, and began dressing in simple long gowns, her hair pulled back tightly from her face. She was forced to reduce her sisters’ allowances, and the women, who drank heavily and fought constantly, began to express resentment toward her.

Everyone who had once been close to her was drifting away. Ruby, threatened by Jack, left Bessie’s troupe for the Gertrude Saunders show. Worst of all, Jack, in what could only have been an act of vengeance, put Jack, Jr., in a children’s home while Bessie was away.

The Depression was affecting everybody now. When the TOBA disintegrated, Bessie’s brother Clarence courageously took it upon himself to set up an extensive independent tour. Frank Walker at Columbia gave him a little help, but Bessie’s star was falling there too. Her new records were released in ever-decreasing quantities, and she took a substantial pay cut on her contract.

In a departure from her usual repertoire, she recorded two quasi-religious songs with James P. Johnson and the Bessemer Singers, “On Revival Day” and “Moan You Mourners.” Some critics scoff at these tracks, but in view of her preacher-father, I don’t find them such surprising choices, and she does them with great energy and fervor. Despite her decidedly secular way of life, she considered herself a religious woman. If her tour got into a town early enough on Sunday morning, she’d always go to church services. Zutty Singleton, her drummer in New Orleans, described her as “real close to God, very religious. . . . She always mentioned the Lord’s name. That’s why her blues seemed almost like hymns.”

She had a profound influence on one of the greatest singers of religious music. Mahalia Jackson, who disapproved of Bessie’s hedonism and blatantly sexual numbers, felt constrained to hide her admiration until late in her life. “Bessie was my favorite, but I never let people know I listened to her,” she admitted. “Mamie Smith, the other famous blues singer, had a prettier voice, but Bessie’s had more soul in it. She dug right down and kept it in you. Her music haunted you even when she stopped singing.”

On the first leg of the new tour, Bessie and her troupe stayed in Chicago, where she looked up a long-time friend, a jazz-loving, party-giving bootlegger named Richard Morgan. Within a few days he and Bessie fell in love. He became not just her man but her manager, and suddenly she was happier than she had been in years.

“Richard was everything that Jack should have been,” her sister-in-law Maud remembered. “They got along very well, they both loved a good time, and they respected each other. Richard was very jovial when he’d had a few drinks, but he never got nasty. . . . He was a good businessman. . . . Also, he was tall and handsome, a real sharp dresser. He was perfect for Bessie.”

This new happiness couldn’t have come at a better time. Her peak earning years were over. Theaters she had once filled were closing down, and after nine years Columbia dropped her. But she still pulled in big, enthusiastic audiences in the South. And when she couldn’t keep up her expenses, Richard helped her out. She seemed to have found peace and comfort with Morgan, who by all accounts was the love of her life.

Around this time John Hammond, an independently wealthy young jazz fan, decided she should be recorded again even if he had to pay for it himself. In November 1933 he got her back into a New York studio with an integrated band of excellent jazz musicians, including Frankie Newton, Jack Teagarden, and Chu Berry. She refused to do blues, choosing instead four upbeat pop songs. Bessie sounds better than ever on these sessions, and it’s a treat to hear her enjoy herself with a swinging band and great soloists. The very next artist to record in that room was another singer Hammond liked, Billie Holiday, then just eighteen.

Still drawing well in some cities, Bessie now tried to keep up with the times by concentrating on pop songs. I laughed when I read that she sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Tea for Two,” but then I remembered what beautiful versions of Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen standards were done by a later artist rooted in the blues, Ray Charles. It would be fascinating to hear what she brought to the new, more sophisticated songs of the 1930s, but she never recorded them.