Ruth Brisbane - vocals; Roland Hanna - piano; Vic Dickenson - trombone; Victor Sproles - bass; Charlie Persip - drums
This Monday afternoon program at Philharmonic Hall in the heart of midtown Manhattan featured singer Ruth Brisbane in a stirring tribute to blues diva Bessie Smith. Accompanied by a veteran crew of pianist Roland Hanna, trombonist Vic Dickenson, bassist Victor Sproles, and drummer Charlie Persip, Brisbane (star of One Mo' Time and Black & Blue on Broadway) showcases her theatrical presence and gospel-tinged fervor on tunes associated with "The Empress of the Blues."
Brisbane sets up the narrative for each tune, beginning with W.C. Handy's "Yellow Dog Blues" before moving into a medley of Bessie Smith's "Empty Bed Blues" and "Baby Won't You Please Come Home," the latter tune written in 1919 became a hit for Bessie Smith in 1926. The earthy "Gimme a Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer)" is a recreation of a Bessie Smith tune from 1936 that tells the tale of a carefree, liberated woman out for a good time up in Harlem. The mournful slow blues "I'm a Young Woman," which Smith recorded in 1926, is delivered with heart-wrenching passion by Brisbane. The mood then shifts to a decidedly upbeat vibe on the jaunty "Cake Walking Babies From Home," a festive number written in 1925 by Clarence Smith and subsequently recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet to Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, and Alberta Hunter. Brisbane closes with a medley of two powerful anti-war songs, "Mr. Rich Man," written by Bessie Smith after WWI, and "What's Goin' On," written in 1971 by Marvin Gaye in the midst of the Vietnam War. All the exceptional sidemen in the band get a chance to stretch out and solo on this spirited vehicle.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15, 1894, Bessie Smith was the most popular blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. Dubbed "The Empress of the Blues," she is often regarded as influential a singer as the great Louis Armstrong, whose impact on generations of jazz vocalists was huge. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Smith had lost both of her parents by the time she was nine years old. Bessie and her brother began singing on the streets of Chattanooga for loose change until her brother left town to join a traveling troupe. In 1912, when she was 18, Bessie Smith joined the same troupe as a dancer (they already had a featured singer in Ma Rainey).
By the early 1920s, Bessie Smith was a seasoned performer, having spent years working in musical theater productions in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New York. She made her first historic blues recordings for the Columbia label in 1923 ("Cemetary Blues," "Gulf Coast Blues," "Downhearted Blues") and by 1925 was a full-fledged star. After a Broadway flop in 1929, the first year of the Great Depression, her career took a slide. With the help of promoter-producer John Hammond, she began making a comeback in 1933 with successful recordings on the Okeh label, including "Take Me For A Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot."
Unfortunately, Bessie Smith was critically injured in a car accident in 1937 while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. She later died from those injuries on September 26, 1937, just months before she was to appear at John Hammond's "Spirituals to Swing" gala at Carnegie Hall. Her grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970, when a tombstone paid for by singer Janis Joplin was erected. In 1994, a commemorative US postage stamp was issued with Bessie's image. (Milkowski)