Thursday, February 21, 2013
Bessie Smith, the subject of THE DEVIL’S MUSIC, the eighty-minute bio-concert now in production at the Cleveland Play House, was noted as the “Empress of the Blues.”
Smith had a magnificent voice, an in-your-face attitude, loved the dramatic, and was noted for her near perfect diction, unique phrasing, and incomparable timing.
Though her career was a success, her personal life imitated the blues she sang. As she once said, “There’s some that calls the blues the devil’s music. Well, honey, I danced to the devil’s music. So, I gotta give the devil his due.”
Born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she was one of seven children. Her father was a Baptist minister and a laborer, who died shortly after Bessie’s birth. Her mother died when Bessie was eight. Raised by an unmarried aunt, she made money on street corners by singing, accompanied by her younger brother.
At eighteen she joined a traveling minstrel show in which late hours, sexual freedom, and the abuse of alcohol was the rule. That laid the foundation for many of the issues in her later life.
In 1920, Mamie Smith (no relation) made the first vocal blues record. When it sold one hundred thousand copies in a month, the record companies went on a search for singers to sell this “race music.”
Bessie was signed in 1923 by Columbia Records. Her first record sold 780,000 copies. From then until 1931, when the depression, the development of the radio and talking motion pictures caused the bottom to fall out of the blues business, she recorded 160 titles. She even starred in a two-reel film, ST LOUIS BLUES, a semi-autobiographical film.
In spite of her financial and artistic success, her life was not easy. The 20’s was a period of high racism, especially in the south. Smith and her entourage were not allowed to stay in “white only” hotels and even had to enter many of the venues in which she performed through the back door.
Her marriage to Jack Gee, which ended in a bitter divorce, resulted in his filing charges against her as a poor mother, causing her to lose custody of their adopted child.
The success of the Benny Goodman band in 1937 brought an interest in swing, and Smith adapted her music to fit the era. Her career was reborn, but on the morning of September 26, 1937, Smith was killed in an auto accident. It was estimated that over 7000 people attended her funeral.
THE DEVIL’S MUSIC opened in New York on June 22, 2011 to universally positive reviews, and ran for a year.
The local production , with stars Miche Braden, who played Smith in the Big Apple, is very entertaining.
Braden has the all the requisites for the role. Her big voice, larger than life personality, excellent comic and dramatic timing, and physical presence, all enhance the show. Her musical trio, Jim Hankins, (bass), George Caldwell (piano) and Keith Loftis (saxophone) are amazing musicians.
The beautifully conceived Victorian-influenced setting, by Michael Schweikardt, takes the audience into a “buffet flat,” “a private establishment where blacks could gather after hours for food, drink, gambling, lodging, entertainment and amusement of all kinds.”
If there is any negative to the show, it’s the format of the script. As a bio-concert, it is neither pure story telling nor musical performance.
We are supposedly experiencing Smith telling us of her life experiences in real time (Monday, October 4, 1937 and nine days earlier). However, Braden breaks the story line by talking to the audience, while also interacting with her amazing on-stage musical trio, while inserting songs that often have no direct relationship to the tale being told. Though all the ideas are interesting, and well performed, there is a disconnect between the musical entertainment and the biographical tale. Though not a major problem, it is enough of a distraction to hold the production from being a mesmerizing experience.
Show highlights include a “sexual union” between Braden and Loftis’s sax, the heartbreaking courtroom segment when Bessie loses custody of her son, and the songs, St. Louis Blues, I Ain’t Got Nobody and Blame It On the Blues.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: THE DEVIL’S MUSIC is a very entertaining evening of theatre, highlighted by the performance of Miche Braden, but is somewhat burdened by the format of the script.
THE DEVIL’S MUSIC runs through March 10, 1913 at the Allen Theatre. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.clevelandplayhouse.com.