The Devil’s Music: The Life & Blues of Bessie Smith
By: Sandi Durell
“If you value your life . . . I’m in a bad mood today,” says the tough, inebriated Bessie Smith (Miche Braden), known as the “Empress of the Blues.” It’s 1937 in Memphis, Tennessee, in what they called a buffet flat, a private establishment where blacks would gather after hours for food, drink, gambling and entertainment of all kinds; a get-a-way from white segregation. The scene provides the backdrop to Ms. Braden’s musical saga, together with her three musicians, at St. Luke’s Theatre on West 46th Street. Bessie Smith was the most influential blues chanteuse of the 1920s, coming up the hard way from a horrendous childhood, a life of booze and drugs and a turbulent marriage.
Miche Braden projects all this and more, as she takes on the soul-stirring songs and emotional upheavals that was Bessie Smith. The one-woman show begins on the night of her death, October 4, 1937, with flashbacks in time as she recounts growing up in a one room shack with lots of kids around, singing and dancing on the streets of Chattanooga for pennies and recalling the days of using the back door, “rules is rules, fools is fools.” She also grew up drinking lots of white lightnin’, also known as hootch or moonshine.
Braden is a sassy, robust artist with strong vocals, who carefully sets up each song so that they flow seamlessly out of a life experience; credit to book writer Angelo Parra. Braden’s intoxicated-style performance brings reality to Bessie Smith’s life as a boozer and as a bi-sexual sex-aholic. Her bluesy tunes interpret who she was from a suggestive “Sugar in My Bowl” to "T’aint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” She was rough and tumble with a bad temper!
Her marriage to a man named Earl Love appeared to start out fine, but then Bessie craved a child, adopting a son, the marriage becoming more chaotic as it fell apart. Her revengeful husband accused her of being unfit as a mother because of drugs, drinking and a bi-sexual lifestyle. He was awarded custody only to place the boy in a home. This is a very poignant portrayal as she pleads with the Judge on her own behalf.
Bessie Smith was all about booze, drugs and lovin’ – “To err is human but it feels so divine,” exclaims Ms. Bessie. She made lots of money considering the time period and the fact that she was black, selling more recordings than anyone other than Caruso and Al Jolson. When the Ku Klux Klan came a-callin’, she “looked the boogie man right in the holes.”
The great blues music includes: “Kitchen Man,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and the show-stopper “St. Louis Blues,” from the short movie of the same name that Smith made in 1929. Smith wrote some of her own tunes, like “Dirty No-Gooders Blues” and “Baby Doll” and Miche Braden seems to follow in her footsteps writing “Devil Dance Blues (Sho Nuff Daddy).
Her three on-stage musicians include Jim Hankins as “Pickle” on bass; Aaron Graves on piano, and sharing the position as sax man either Keith Loftis or Anthony E. Nelson, Jr.
By the 1930s, swing was becoming the music of the day and Smith saw her career start to wane as the Devil’s music, the blues, no longer held the same cache. She was about to make her way into the swing era, even though she was told she was too black, when she died in a tragic automobile accident in Mississippi.
Miche Braden embodies much of Bessie in this portrayal, her colorful vocals playful, her emotional yearnings truthful. And she does know how to work an audience. It’s a class act performed without an intermission! The concept, musical staging and direction are by Joe Brancato.
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 West 46th Street, NYC
Running Time 1hr. 30 min
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