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Best Bessie

April 2024
1min read

Susannah McCorkle’s superb biographical essay on the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith (November), is by far the most gripping account of Bessie’s life so far—and I have read them all, including Chris Albertson’s. I first heard Bessie wailing “Trombone Cholly” (1927, with Charlie Green, to whom the title of the song refers) on a jazz recording broadcast from Hartford, Connecticut, when I was a four-teen-year-old away at prep school in 1961; by the end of that year, 1 had all four Columbia albums of reissues, and in subsequent years I bought the entire award-winning collection of remastered recordings which Columbia sponsored.

I discovered Billie Holiday the same year. Billie acknowledged Bessie’s influence—“I always wanted Bessie’s big sound, and Pop’s [Louis Armstrong’s] feeling,” she wrote—and when Carmen McRae died a couple of years ago, I felt that the world had reached the end of an era. Who was left among singers, except Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and certainly Rosemary Clooney, who knew Billie personally and had heard her sing in person? Billie was like a last link to Bessie, and Carmen was the clearest link to Billie. McCorkle allays those fears. It is ironic that she writes as if she is in the shadows of these vocal giants, for she is one of the most original jazz vocalists of our own era, although on a more subtle and refined plane, and like Bessie and Billie, her style resists easy definition. With this article she proves that she is also a talented and accomplished writer, worthy of the task of de-mythologizing Bessie’s life.

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