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Publisher's Summary

Bessie Smith, the great singer known as the "Empress of the Blues", is considered by many to be the greatest blues singer of all time. She was also a successful vaudeville entertainer who became the highest-paid African American performer of the Roaring '20s. Chris Albertson's revised and expanded edition of the biography of this extraordinary artist debunks many of the myths that have circulated since her untimely death in 1937. Albertson writes with insight and candor about the singer's personal life and her career, supplementing his historical research with dozens of interviews with her relatives, friends, and associates, including Ruby Walker Smith, a niece by marriage who toured with Bessie for over a decade.

©2003 Chris Albertson (P)2014 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"The most devastating, provocative, and enlightening work of its kind ever contributed to the annals of jazz literature." ---Los Angeles Times

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Keeping it real for Bessie

Good story, even though it reads as a school text book.
This is perfect for research into early American music, Blues, Jazz, and female poplar singers, African American and otherwise. Bessie gives you a good understanding about how the music business and race relations interacted during the 20s and 30s. I highly recommend this book as a reality check for myths and legends and their failure to deliver a better story than the truth.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Great read!. I saw the HBO mini series..and it was

awesome """""""""""""""""""""@@@@@@it was an awesome book and much richer than the HBO doc. great read.

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Imperfect but worthwhile.

With little historical material to draw on the author relied heavily on second and third hand information. His writing was also heavily biased with his own opinions which I found often offputting. That said I would say it's still a worthwhile audiobook for people with an interest in Bessie Smith.

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First-rate bio of a first-rate blues legend

Wow. Chris Albertson's biography of blues legend Bessie Smith is one of those books I love because it has a good story, a great character and an author who cares deeply for his subject.

In 1947, author Chris Albertson was a boy living in Copenhagen when he first heard Bessie on the radio. He was hooked. Years later, he moved to the States and spent two years trying to convince Columbia, which owned the rights to her music, to put out an anthology.

Albertson's biography first appeared in 1972. This audio version is the revision, which includes new information, edits and a compelling afterword.

Following an author introduction, the book slams right into the tragic end of a beautiful, bold and bumpy life. Albertson takes us to 1937 and a train steaming into a Philadelphia station. Bessie is carried off in a coffin. On September 26, the car driven by her lover Richard Morgan had collided with a truck. Bessie's arm, which was probably hanging outside the window, had been severed at the elbow. That and other injuries contributed to her death the next morning.

Bessie's estranged husband, Jack Dee, made sure to meet the train, and to weep loudly for the press.

It's a good thing Albertson began his book in the 1970s. He was able to conduct interviews with many people who'd known Bessie, including Jack Dee and his niece Ruby, who'd toured with Bessie and knew her about as well as anyone.

The story chronicles Bessie's early life in Tennessee. Her parents died young. So she was brought up by an older sister who's meanness probably helped Bessie make up her mind to get out of there. She came into the orbit of Ma Rainey, a mentor to the aspiring singer.

Several big-name blues and jazz legends pass in and out of Bessie's story. She recorded "St. Louis Blues" with Louis Armstrong. She also recorded for John Hammond, the Columbia producer famous for "discovering" Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and for putting together the From Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1938.

Albertson was little impressed by Hammond, whom he also interviewed. He details a uncomfortable scene between Hammond and Bessie's niece Ruby in the 1970s. Hammond gives Ruby a ten spot and says, "I'll never see that again." If Hammond was a great promoter of black artists, Albertson also sees him as a Great White Father. (Audible has a biography of John Hammond, if you're interested in getting another perspective.)

What the author does best is bring Bessie Smith to life. She pops off the page with a loud voice, a huge heart and a lot of troubles. Man troubles, woman troubles--she liked both--not to mention troubles with music biz scoundrels.

There's one incredible scene in which Bessie and Jack Dee confront a guy who's refused to pay up. Maybe he was a concert promoter. Can't remember. Well, Bessie and Jack solve the problem. They beat him till he hits the floor and then beat him some more. Bessie got her money.

The singer was no victim, though racism, fraudulent businessmen and the Depression shoved her around. She liked her moonshine. She liked her good times. But she loved music, and Bessie Smith sang the blues to break your heart and breathe life into a too often cruel world.

I wasn't sure I wanted a white guy reading Bessie's story. But narrator Robertson Dean overcame my reservations. He seemed to enjoy pulling off Bessie's saucy putdowns. The woman could burn on and off the stage.