Bessie Smith lived a life of extremes, of success as a great blues singer, and of great personal tragedy. Jackie Kay’s biography concentrates on her torrid personal and public life of female lovers, an unhappy marriage and hard drinking.
A BBC RADIO 4 BOOK OF THE WEEK
Bessie Smith: singer, icon, pioneer.
Scotland’s National Poet Jackie Kay brings to life the tempestuous story of the greatest blues singer who ever lived.
‘A gem of a book . . . beautiful.’ BERNARDINE EVARISTO
‘A wonderful writer on a magnificent singer.’ ROBERT WYATT
‘Kay’s book is the amplifier that Smith’s voice deserves.’ SUNDAY TIMES
‘The most vivid evocation of Bessie Smith I have ever read.’ IAN CARR, BBC MUSIC
BESSIE SMITH was born in Tennessee in 1894. Orphaned by the age of nine, she sang on street corners before becoming a big name in travelling shows. In 1923 she made her first recording for a new start-up called Columbia Records. It sold 780,000 copies and made her a star. Smith’s life was notoriously difficult: she drank pints of ‘bathtub gin’, got into violent fist fights, spent huge sums of money and had passionate love affairs with men and women. She once single-handedly fought off a cohort of the Ku Klux Klan.
As a young black girl growing up in Glasgow, Jackie Kay found in Bessie someone with whom she could identify and who she could idolise. In this remarkable book Kay mixes biography, fiction, poetry and prose to create an enthralling account of an extraordinary life.
‘Biographies don’t usually bring the subject to life again. This one did. I finished the book then started it again immediately.’
‘What a life! What gulpable storytelling! Exactly the kind of writing about music we need: personal, ardent, playfully confrontational, questioning, undogmatic. A love song to a complicated idol.’
‘Pure joy: one trailblazing woman pays tribute to another. Jackie Kay finds the music in the short, dazzling, capricious life of Bessie Smith.’