Bessie Smith Finally Gets Her Encore

Posted May 17, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

A new star-studded bio-pic places much-deserved awareness on the legendary, yet unsung blues singer 

Many, many decades ago there rose a ballsy female singer that defied the rules and the blues. Dirty, sexual lyrics blanketed much of her output, in ways that rival those of 21st century sexually-empowered popstar divas. Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Beyoncé, Rihanna, please back up. And make way for the mother of the blues, Bessie Smith.

The influential blues singer, born in the 20th century Deep South, hasn’t quite earned the kind of confection that Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong has earned, and much of that may have to deal with the fact that her career was cut short due to the arrival of the Great Depression, which practically put the recording industry into a coma and a tragic car accident that ended her life in 1937. She also curtailed in saucy repertoire, singing songs so raunchy that it became the voice of the underground and too controversial for the mainstream. But the influence of Smith on music, even outside the world of the blues, was powerfully felt. In her zenith she was a mighty force, recording ten Top 10 records that landed on the nation’s hit parade (prior to the Billboard Hot 100). She influenced a giant load of singers ranging from when you hear the whoops and aggression of Mahalia Jackson, you’re hearing an understudy of Smith.

Certainly there were blues singers that walked the line of mundane secularism and untempered sex; there was Tampa Red, Ethel Waters and Smith’s biggest inspiration (and career coach) Ma Rainey, but none matched the unstoppable fervor and dominion that Smith’s content generated. In the new book A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel, Bob Marovich writes about the explosion of the blues created by Smith and how it opened up the floodgates for more “race records” in the marketplace. “By 1923, when Bessie Smith’s Columbia recordings of classic blues compromised nearly one-fifth of all “race” record purchases that year, the profit potential in recording music by African-Americans for the African American market was undisputed,” he writes.

Smith’s impact even extended its way to the first generation of gospel singers. From Hattie Parker of the Pace Jubilee Singers to the crowned Queen of Gospel Mahalia Jackson, Smith’s DNA can be felt. Marovich concurs. “She regaled playmates with ‘St. Louis Blues’ and ‘My Blue Heaven’ and incorporated into her singing the vocal scoops and plaintive moans of Smith. As a teen, Jackson was fond of Smith’s mournful 1925 recording of ‘Careless Love.'”

Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith

Thanks to a new bio-doc airing on HBO that took twenty years to finalize, the unsung blues singer is now getting her shine in the spotlight. Critics are already pouring accolades on the film for its compassion to her stunning rise to fame and the portrayal of sympathy felt when uncovering dark chapters in Smith’s life. Her bisexuality is part of the story’s arc, so is her allegiance to Rainey (played by Academy Award-winning Mo’Nique). Hip-hop legend/singer/actress/LGBT activist Queen Latifah plays Smith, and even provides her own interpretations to some of Smith’s most enduring classics to the film’s soundtrack. There’s even some tech-advance sorcery used on “Gimmie a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” blending Smith’s vocal with Latifah to create an once-in-a-lifetime collaboration.

Latifah does a fine job singing in the tradition of Smith. She doesn’t quite capture the mean Southern gusto of the blues pro, but definitely uses good vibrato and a little Mahalia soulfulness. Latifah nee’ Dana Owens — who has recorded jazz and blues offerings in the past — proves to be one of the best singer castings in bio-pic land since Jamie Foxx took on Ray Charles for 2004’s Ray.

Latifah is definitely the magnet for the bio-pic; its supporting cast of stars (Mike Epps, Charles S. Dutton, Bryan Greenberg, Tika Sumpter) are just as rewarding. Film promoters and Latifah (also an executive producer on Bessie) are hoping that Millennials will tune in and want to dig deeper into Smith’s discography. The official soundtrack only pulls out six of Smith’s gems, leaving eternal offerings like the Louis Armstrong-guested “St. Louis Blues,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “I Ain’t Got Nobody” are off the fleet. Even the ragtime-influenced “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” — famously covered by a drove of legends like Eric Clapton — is absent. The song is so legendary that the late Bobby Womack took the song, retitled it and gloriously updated with a R&B-funk twist in 1973, shooting all the way to number two R&B and 29 pop.

Younger audiences who dig deep into Smith’s almost 100-year old recordings, particularly those who bite at scandalous pop creatures like Miley Cyrus, will easily find out that very little innuendo separated her works from lyrical porn. “I’m Wild About That Thing” is almost self explanatory. “What’s the matter papa, please don’t stall/ Don’t you know I love it and I want it all,” she sings with a matter of glee. On “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” she talks about wanting “a little hot dog between my roll.” You can even find Smith telling some of her salacious bedroom secrets on “Empty Bed Blues,” decorated with Charlie Green’s trombone and the jazzy touches of Porter Grainger’s piano. The stench of sex runs rampant in these kind of tales, making up a huge chunk of Smith’s catalog.

Bessie Smith was indeed the mother of the blues, even if she’s often not treated like it. But you don’t need accolades to point out a fact. Music historian Nelson George pointed out the just how Smith’s influence is deeply engrained in a variety of musicians extending way past the blues, all the way to artists like Beyoncé and Bruno Mars. “The blues is the backbone of American music, and Smith is one of the most important singers of all time,” he says. “Rock star Janis Joplin specially mentioned that Bessie Smith was one of her biggest influences. You can see that if you work backward from Janis to artists like Etta James, Billie Holiday and Big Mama Thornton, you see all of them benefited from Smith, who came before them.”

An important, humbling footnote: Smith died with all the glory of fame; her funeral and burial in Philadelphia, many miles away from her humble beginnings in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was attended by an upwards of ten thousand mourners. Unfortunately dying with fame doesn’t mean one dies with wealth. Smith’s estate was practically penniless at the time of her death. Her gravesite was absent of a tombstone for decades. Stepping in to make a benevolent sacrifice in 1970 was that of rock legend Janis Joplin, a singer who idolized Smith and also died way too soon.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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