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Bessie: Revised and expanded edition Paperback – June 10, 2005

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Editorial Reviews


"The first estimable full-length biography not only of Bessie Smith but of any black musician.”—Whitney Balliett, New Yorker (on the first edition)

“A remarkably clear-eyed examination of Smith’s personality (and sexuality) and, more important, of the gritty and greedy music business.”—Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly

“The most devastating, provocative, and enlightening work of its kind ever contributed to the annals of jazz literature.”—Leonard Feather, Los Angeles Times (on the first edition)

About the Author

Chris Albertson is the acknowledged authority on Bessie Smith. A long-time contributor to Stereo Review, Down Beat, Saturday Review, and other publications, he has written extensive liner notes for jazz and blues albums and has produced a wide array of recordings, radio, and television programs.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; Revised and Expanded ed. edition (June 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300107560
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300107562
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #825,975 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Chris Albertson (born October 18, 1931) is a New York City-based jazz journalist, writer and record producer.

He was born in Reykjavík and educated in Iceland, Denmark and England before studying commercial art in Copenhagen. In 1947, Albertson made a discovery which was to change his life when he happened upon a Bessie Smith recording on the Danish radio; it led to an abiding interest in jazz and blues music. On his home tape machine, Albertson recorded visiting British New Orleans revivalists Ken Colyer, Chris Barber and Lonnie Donegan in 1953. These recordings were subsequently released on the Danish Storyville Records and British Tempo Records labels, and remain in the former's catalog.

In 1957, after two years as a disc jockey for Armed Forces Radio at Keflavík Air Base, in Iceland, Albertson migrated to the United States (naturalised 1963) initially working in commercial radio in Philadelphia, WCAU (a CBS affiliate) and WHAT-FM, a 24-hour jazz station. At these stations, he conducted a number of interviews, including a rare one with Lester Young, one of only two extant with the tenor saxophonist.

In 1960-61 he was employed by Riverside Records' Bill Grauer as a producer. In this capacity, he arranged and recorded the last sessions of blues singer Ida Cox (whom he brought out of retirement) and legendary boogie woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis, and supervised the label's memorable 'Living Legends' series of location recordings. The initial albums in this series were made in New Orleans and featured such pioneer jazz musicians as pianist Sweet Emma Barrett, clarinetist Louis Cottrell, trumpeters Percy Humphrey and Kid Thomas, blues duo Billie and Dede Pierce, and trombonist Jim Robinson. He continued the series in Chicago, with performances by Lil Armstrong, Alberta Hunter, Little Brother Montgomery, and Earl Hines. Albertson subsequently worked as producer for Prestige Records, supervising sessions by, among others, guitarist/singer Lonnie Johnson, whom he had pulled from obscurity while working in Philadelphia. He also started his own production company, supervising sessions that included Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, Bud Freeman, Ray Bryant, and Elmer Snowden. In the mid-sixties, following a period as general manager of Pacifica station, WBAI, in New York, Albertson went to work for the BBC in London, advising them on how to adapt their radio programmes for sale in North America.

In 1971, Albertson co-produced and hosted The Jazz Set, a weekly television program that was aired from coast to coast by the PBS network and featured such guests as Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Randy Weston, Jimmy Heath, and Ray Bryant. At this time, he was also producing reissues for Columbia Records, most notably the complete Bessie Smith LP sets. His work on these albums won Albertson two Grammy awards (one in 1971 in the Best Album Notes category for "The World's Greatest Blues Singer" and a Trustees Award), a Billboard Trendsetter Award and the Montreux Jazz Festival's Grand Prix du Disque. A songbook, Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues, was published by Macmillan's Schirmer Books division in 1975. His standard work, Bessie, a biography of Bessie Smith, first appeared in 1972, with a revised and expanded version published by Yale University Press in 2003; it was inducted into the National Blues Foundation's classic literature Hall of Fame in May of 2012). Albertson has written TV documentaries, including "The Story of Jazz" and "My Castle's Rocking" (a bio-documentary on Alberta Hunter), as well as articles and reviews for various publications, including "Saturday Review" and "Down Beat". He served as General Manager for WBAI, the Pacifica radio network's New York station, and worked for the BBC in London and New York before devoting his full time to writing. He was a contributing editor for Stereo Review magazine for twenty-eight years.

In recent years, Albertson has been a prominent contributor to several jazz bulletin boards on the internet, where he maintains two blogs (http://stomp-off.blogspot.com and http://wbai-nowthen.blogspot.com). Since 2003, he has worked on the translation and interpretation of data pertaining to slavery on St. Croix in the 18th and 19th centuries, and an autobiography is an ongoing project.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I discovered Bessie Smith's music in the late 80's/early 90's
when Sony/Legacy released a 4-box "Complete Recordings" series
spanning her whole recording career from 1923, when she
signed to Columbia Records' "Race Records" division and became
a huge star with the low-down rawkus blues songs that were popular
with both blacks and whites of the time, all through the 1920's,
to the depression era, where her popularity faded and the real-life
blues of people on breadlines eclipsed the romantic & hard times
blues in her most popular recordings.

"Folks don't wanna hear the blues no 'mo, times is hard!"
Bessie was heard to exclaim to her closest freinds.
Born in or around April 1894, in Chattanooga, TN into
abject poverty, suffocating Jim Crow racism, child abuse,
desolation all around her, the young tall stringy black gal
named Bessie Smith learned to scrap for survival at very early age.
Her and her brother Clarence took to the streets at a young age
as "buck dancers" and minstral-type skit performers,
which over time, Bessie developed perfect comedic timing,
slick dance moves, presence, and a voice that could stop people
in their tracks and put them in a trance!
People who heard Bessie in person said that her singing was
clear, powerful and went straight to your soul!
It was like a religious experience some said, except in her day
the blues was seen as crude and profane by narrow-minded church
types who saw her as a tortured soul singing the devil's music
who would surely burn in hell for all eternity!
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Format: Hardcover
Albertson has had the rare fortune to have interviewed Bessie Smith's niece Ruby Walker Smith who toured with Bessie for over a decade. No other book on Bessie is needed. You can't find all these great interviews w/ relatives and friends in another book. And the great thing is this one is written well. Not a dry biography but one with enough candor and insight to make Bessie seem alive.

"See that long lonesome road, Lawd you know it's gonna end, and I'm a good woman and I can get plenty of men."
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Bessie Smith is near the top of my lists of artists I'd love to go back in time to hear, if I had access to a time machine. No footage, save "St. Louis" Blues, of any of her performances exists. And while she left a treasure trove of recordings from nearly every phase of her career (except for the last), very little of her story has every been told except for repeated myths.

This book rights that egregious wrong is righted by Chris Albertson's book. Meticulously researched, Albertson's well written book is the most intimate look at Smith's life we are likely to get. Much of what Albertson recounts, in fact, comes directly from people who were close to Bessie Smith, and who worked with her. Along the way, Albertson unflinchingly debunks some of the oldest legends about Smith, up to and including the truth about the circumstances of Smith's death.

Albertson expertly pulls back focus to give readers a picture of the times in which Smith lived and worked, during a 27-year-long career, just enough to give the reader a complete picture before zooming in on Smith again. The result is not just a record of the life of Bessie Smith, but a record of her life and times.

Albertson uses Columbia Records archives to tell the story of Smith's recording sessions throughout her career, offering brief reviews of Smith's recorded performances, and note her collaborations with other legendary artists from Jellyroll Morton, to Louis Armstrong and Bennie Goodman. It was enough to send me to iTunes to download some of Smith's catalog. Afterward, I took to reading the book while listening to Smith's music as a soundtrack. If you've heard these songs before, you may listen with new perspective after reading Albertson's account of the recording sessions.
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Format: Paperback
"Bessie" by Chris Albertson presents the life and times of America's greatest blues singer within the context of the entertainment business as it existed during her lifetime. With access to new materials not available to other biographers, including the remarkable memories of Ruby Walker, who traveled for years with Bessie on the "Chitlin'" circuit, Albertson digs beyond the clichéd traditional story of an uncouth phenomenon of nature, who sang, and lived, the blues life, drinking hard and dying tragically.

Albertson confirms many of the now legendary brawls and drinking and infidelity which occupied a substantial amount of Bessie Smith's time and energy. But he also brings out the fact that as much as anything Bessie Smith was a product of the vaudeville entertainment which ruled the day in the 1920s and into the 30s. Yes, Smith could holler and shout the blues like no other before or after her. But she also sang popular tunes of the day, novelty songs, and gave performances that were rich in comedy and theatricality. Smith's ability to bring the genuine blues to a mass audience within the confines of a touring vaudeville troupe brings a richness to the story of Bessie Smith that has long been missing.

Albertson's depiction of the life and times of Bessie Smith is well-written, filled with previously unknown facts, and reflects both the authors admiration for his subject and his objectivity as a biographer. Highly recommended.
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