by Michael A. Gonzales
Growing-up in the post-civil rights era, Bessie Smiths tragic death on September 26, 1937 in Clarksdale, Mississippi following a car accident was often used to illustrate the brutality of the separate but equal Jim Crow laws in the South. Supposedly, after a Southern white hospital refused to admit the pioneering blues singer following the crash, Bessie bled to death on the side of the road. With her legend becoming a modern day folk tale that haunted many Black children, most of us had no idea who Smith was or what she represented. While this version of Bessies biography, written by legendary record man John Hammond in the pages of Down Beat magazine, was later discovered to be a myth, it served as an introduction to not only Bessie Smith but the blues themselves.
Although Black history elders often schooled us kids about Smiths demise throughout my childhood, I knew very little about her music until I was old enough to drink and cuss and carry my own blues burden in a Black sack over my aching shoulder. The blues mightve served as the foundation for most modern day music, from soul to rock to hip-hop, but back in the day the form wasnt respected enough by our educators, be them black or white, to be taught in school beside Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King. Most of what I knew about the blues came from reading interviews with rock stars (Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin) whom had no problem citing Robert Johnson or Smith for their contributions to the canon. Unlike respectable music such as classical or jazz, the blues was considered dirty music that was best left as a footnote, rather than something to be celebrated.
In the early 1990s, when Columbia Records (now Sony) released the first in a series of complete recordings by Smith, it served as my introduction to the talent of the woman called the Empress of the Blues. Turning off the lights and sparking a cigarette, I was ready to be transported back to an era of juke-joint fun straight out of The Color Purple (where the fictional Suge Avery seemed a stand-in for Bessie) as Smith sang about her man leavin her (Down Heart Blues), bad luck in her life (Lady Luck Blues) and getting locked down for thirty-days (Jail-House Blues).
Although the sound quality of these old recordings were primitive and scratchy as an ancient Victrola phonograph, I was enthralled by the material as much as I was by Smiths hypnotic voice and lyricism. Bessie made grown folks music with a gritty tenderness to them. These were tunes to make love to, tell lies by or slice someone with the jagged edge of a broken moonshine bottle.
Trouble, trouble, Ive had it all my days, Smith growled. It seems that trouble’s going to follow me to my grave. While her lyrics were as hardcore as any contemporary rapper, Smith was unafraid of revealing vulnerability in her voice as she pulled me into her world. If this was the devils music, then I was going to hell.
For me, there was something truly inspiring in the way Smith transformed everyday Negro existence into high art; I could see/hear her influence in the works of Billie Holiday, Ralph Ellison, Romare Bearden, August Wilson, Alice Walker and Mary J. Blige. Seventy-eight years after Bessies death, the heart of music continues to beat and inspire. If you dont believe me, just listen to FKA twigs.
Unlike the uproar that occurred when Zoe Saldana signed on to play Nina Simone, when it was announced that Queen Latifah was to portray Bessie Smith, I couldnt help but cheer. Not only can the rapper turned actress also sing wonderfully, but her physicality reminds me of the few photos Ive seen of Smith in her performance heyday, when she was one of the most popular and highest paid entertainers in the world.
Listening to the soundtrack for the upcoming flick Bessie (Legacy Recordings/Sony), its obvious that Latifah has a love for Smith, but thankfully her interpretations focus more on capturing the spirit than trying to sound exactly like her. Opening with Young Womans Blues, Latifah perfectly embodies the sparse power of Smiths vocals. Bringing an authority to her performance, Latifah belts out songs like Weepin Woman Blues and Long Old Road with force and impassioned feeling. The Bessie soundtrack also features period music that includes former Smith collaborator Louis Armstrong (Weary Blues, What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue) and Fats Waller (A Good Man is Hard to Find) as well as a rousing cover of See See Rider performed by Brooklyn blues woman Tamar-Kali.
While I was ready to hate on the so-called remix of Bessies classic Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer, which serves as a duet between Smith and Latifah, the track actually works much better than one might anticipate. Co-produced by Adam Blackstone, who like Latifah hails from New Jersey, the multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, and bassist who has worked with The Roots, Justin Timberlake and Jill Scott, brings a big band vintage swagger to a track that would be sacrilegious in less competent hands. The band, featuring Steve Tirpak, who also helped with the orchestration and scoring, keeps it raw while still managing to swing as though Nelson Riddle was conducting them.
From the articles and books Ive read about Bessie Smith, with my favorite written by Scottish writer Jackie Kay that weaves fact, fiction and poetics, the Empress of the Blues had a life full of fight, fun, fury, and fabulous music. For many, Bessie will serve as an introduction to an iconic figure who is long overdue to be recognized for her achievements. From what Ive heard on the soundtrack and seen of the film, which airs tomorrow night (May 16) on HBO, Queen Latifah captures Bessie Smith brilliantly.
Check out a trailer from the film and a couple of our favorite clips of live performances from Bessie Smith.
Bessie Smith- I need A Little Sugar In My bowl
Bessie Smith – A Good Man is Hard to Find
Bessie Smith – St. Louis Blues