BESSIE SMITH:  THE DEVIL’S IN HER MUSIC

 

BONNIE GOLDBERG

Bessie Smith earned the title “The Empress of the Blues” because she not only sang the blues, she lived them.  One of the most popular blues singers of the 1920’s and 1930’s, she grew up in poverty, in Chattanooga, earning pennies by singing and dancing on street corners.

A glimpse into her personal and stage life is being royally provided by Waterbury’s Seven Angels Theatre until Sunday, November 28 as the sultry and sassy Miche Braden weaves her special spell.  “The Devil’s Music:  The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” by Angelo Parra, conceived and directed by Joe Brancato, with musical direction and arrangements by Ms. Braden, centers on Bessie Smith’s last performance in 1937.

This hard drinking, easy cussing, happy partying woman led a stormy life, orphaned early, encountered and committed infidelities, lost her adopted son in a legal custody battle, worked hard to establish her own career as a black woman in the music industry and eventually became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day.  She was versatile and flexible enough to know when the blues was ending and changed her style to swing, working with such greats as Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman.

With a super jazz trio behind her, Jimmy Hankins on bass, Aaron Graves on piano and Anthony Nelson on saxophone, Miche Braden wails and warbles as Bessie Smith, setting fire and electrifying such tunes as “Blame It on the Blues,” “St. Louis Blues” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” while being downright naughty in such numbers as “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.”  Stories and anecdotes punctuate the music and provide personal insights into her soul.

For tickets ($29-39), call the Seven Angels Theatre, Plank Road, Hamilton Pavilion Park, Waterbury at 203-757-4676 or online at www.sevenangelstheatre.org.  Performances are Thursday at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. No performances on Thanksgiving.

Meet Bessie Smith whose influence on the history of jazz and the blues was so pervasive that decades after her death she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame (1980) and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1989) and Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin credit her for her groundbreaking work.

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