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

4.7 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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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.

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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 (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,036,364 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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