Preface

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of Chattanooga: “The Life and Times of Bessie Smith”

By Clifford Eberhardt

Chapter 15

Now, it was Bessie’s time to take the stage.  She quickly climbed the ladder at the back of the stage just  before the MC introduced her to the audience.  As Bessie stepped on the stage, she turned and saw Jake giving  her the crossed fingers sign for good luck.  Bessie was very nervous.  She had never sung before an audience this large.  Of course, singing for the patrons of the juke joints on Ninth Street was one thing, but singing before a real audience was another.  
               

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have come down to the final act... it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you,  Bessie Smith...  a blues singer," the MC announced.
               

There were some claps from members of the audience who had often heard Bessie singing on Ninth Street.  But the rest of the audience seemed tired from their confrontations with the other contestants.  Besides,  they had run out of things to throw long ago.
               

Bessie slowly walked to the center of the stage.  She was accompanied by a slow drum roll played by the three-piece band that had played very little music behind the other contestants.  The band consisted of a piano, a bass guitar and a  set of drums.  This was the band’s first serious attempt to play behind a contestant because not only were they laughing at the other contestants,  members of the band were throwing things too.  

Before Bessie took to the stage, the MC had told the band not to  ridicule her like they did the others.  The band was asked, as a favor for Jake, to make a serious attempt to help Bessie with her number.  The band was familiar with the song and started off playing the melody of "Weary Blues."
                 

"Weary Blues" was a song that was not yet recorded but routinely sung by blues singers.  Bessie had learned the song by hearing it at the joints on Ninth Street.  She  picked up the beat quickly and started to sing along with the band in a very soft voice.  So soft, that one member of the audience shouted, "Sing up,  gal...  we can’t hear you back here!"
               

This gave Bessie the confidence and encouragement she needed.  Now, she felt  that the audience was not at all hostile to her but  interested in her music.  Bessie began to sing above the band and soon she had the audience rocking and rolling to "Weary Blues." 
               

The audience didn’t seem like the same audience that was so hostile to the other contestants.  Bessie had them under her spell, and some of them were even singing along.  At that moment, Bessie found that she had a unique way of getting the audience involved in her performance.  This ability to capture the audience would ultimately be her trademark for greatness.
               

With the way she sang and danced to the music of the band, it was obvious that Bessie had natural talent and rhythm.  Her performance consisted of a  few simple dance steps, her arms swinging, her head moving from left to right, and her narrow hips moving innocently side to side to the music.  But what made the audience love Bessie so was her great contralto voice, and how she sang the blues.
               

Bessie’s voice was so strong and clear that she not only soothed the hostile audience, but she attracted the attention of the other performers in the show.  Even Ma Rainey came out of her tent when she heard  Bessie singing..
               

When Bessie finished doing her number, members from  the audience rushed the stage to congratulate her.  The audience was in a frenzy trying to get to her.  People were pushing each other out the way just for a chance to get close to Bessie. 
               
"Gal, that was good," one man said after he pushed his way through the crowd to get to Bessie.  "You know you can sho sang them blues!"
               

"Bessie, you keep on singin' them blues like that, you gonna be a big star," another man said while trying to get her attention.
               

The praises went on until tears started to trickle down Bessie's face.  These were tears of happiness because she had never received this much attention before.  Bessie could not believe that the people loved her music that much.   All she could do was cry, and say to her  fans with tears running down her face, "Thank  y'all... thank  y'all.  Thanks.

 

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