REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
It’s been 80 years since Bessie Smith, the celebrated Empress of the Blues, died a lonely death, after an auto accident on a desolate Mississippi road. Contrary to legend, Smith did not bleed to death after being refused admission to a white Southern hospital. That story was related to Down Beat magazine by Columbia Records impresario John Hammond, who later apologized, saying that it was all based on hearsay. But her injuries were severe enough so that when she was taken to the nearest hospital (which happened to be one that accepted blacks), that she was beyond saving, and died at the young age of 43.
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is a one-woman show that made its debut Off-Broadway in 2011 to critical acclaim. It is being staged at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, featuring the original star, Miche Braden. Braden (whose first name is pronounced “Mickey”) is a phenomenal performer, emerging from the wings wearing a long fur stole and breathing fire: “Get outta my way!” she sings, “I’m in a bad mood today!” From that point on, she has the audience in the palms of her hands as she powers her way through a dozen of Smith’s most famous songs, interspersing them with a chronological commentary of the roller coaster life of the celebrated “Empress of the Blues.”
The Devil’s Music doesn’t pull its punches; this is no whitewashed hagiography. Playwright Angelo Parra’s book exposes all of Bessie Smith’s foibles as well as her charisma: her alcoholism, her sexual dalliances with female show girls, and her rough-and-tumble, take-no-prisoners temper. Born in 1894, Smith grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of seven children, who was orphaned at a young age and forced to live on the streets. She paid her dues in cheap vaudeville shows before joining a traveling show led by the great blues maven Ma Rainey, who became Smith’s mentor.
After being turned down by a number of independent record companies in the early 1920s, who said she sounded “too black,” she was given a chance to record for Columbia Records. Her first single, “Down Hearted Blues,” recorded in 1923, sold 780,000 copies, making her the highest paid black entertainer in the world. Her act was gaudy, bawdy, and naughty, and Braden does a fabulous job bringing Smith to life – cursing right and left, taking frequent swigs from a hip flask, and mostly, complaining about her break-up/make-up relationship with her no-account husband, Jack Gee (“He sure put some hot stuff in my oven,” Braden, says, shaking her head and letting out a hearty horsey laugh.).
Smith eventually got her own vaudeville show and traveled the country in an ornate railroad car (purchased after she got tired of being refused accommodations in hotels because of her color). When club owners balked at letting her enter a theater through the front door, citing theater “policy,” Smith cussed them out: “Rules is rules and fools is fools!” she said, climbed aboard her train, and rode out of town. Bessie Smith was always ready to do battle and took no guff from anyone. She even survived a stabbing after a performance in her home town of Chattanooga, chasing her attacker into the night with the knife still stuck in her chest. She eventually made her way to a hospital and was back performing the next day.
Braden draws the Rubicon audience in by directing her barbs at them (in fun, of course), making the show the equivalent of an intimate night club experience. Joining her on stage is a trio consisting of James Hankins as “Pickle,” playing bass fiddle, Gerard William Gibbs on piano, and Anthony E. Nelson on tenor sax and clarinet. Nelson, who without his scraggly beard would resemble Fats Domino, joined Braden in a raunchy pas de deux on “St. Louis Blues,” lasciviously responding to her lines with equally risque bleats on his saxophone.
As Braden takes Smith’s life into the 1930s, the mood gets darker, as she relates how her adopted son, Jack Gee, Jr., was taken away from her by her estranged husband, who cited her temper, drinking, and lesbianism as evidence for being a bad role model. The lights become dimmed and tinged with purple as she launches into a wailing, brooding gospel-tinged rendition of “I Ain’t Got Nobody (And Nobody Cares for Me).” In the Depression-soaked 1930s, Smith’s fame evaporated. (“Nobody wants the blues anymore – they’re living it,” she moaned.) Released by Columbia, Smith met a bootlegger named Richard Morgan, and was trying to make a comeback with a prospected appearance at Carnegie Hall when she died in the fatal 1937 car wreck.
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is an outstanding, realistic depiction of a larger-than-life personality and the first superstar of the blues. One can forgive the band for not quite getting the sound of the era right – at times, the trio sounds more like a 1950s Chicago nightclub trio than a Roaring ’20s vaudeville band. (Ma Rainey’s “Blame It On the Blues” uses a riff that is taken directly from Muddy Waters’ 1954 hit, “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.”) In “Down Hearted Blues,” Braden gets the lyrics wrong when she sings “I ain’t never loved but three men in my life” and then sings “…my father, my mother, and the man that wrecked my life.” But these minor issues can be overlooked in what is really a stunning, explosive performance by Braden and her on-stage band.
Plaudits to Brian Prather for his sumptuous set decoration, approximating a mid-1930s hotel bar, and Patricia E. Doherty for the period-accurate costumes. The show is handsomely directed by Joe Brancato. The Devil’s Music is a rollicking, emotionally rich musical that will have you laughing and crying along with its star – a perfect way to celebrate Black History Month.
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith plays through March 12 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. The show is not suitable for young children due to language and suggestive content.