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 17

When Ma entered the Big Tent for her singing duel against Bessie, Bessie was already on stage doing the opening number for the Grand Finale.  She was belting out "St. Louis Blues," a song written by the great blues composer W. C. Handy. "St. Louis Blues" was the most popular blues song of that day, and Bessie was giving a masterful performance.

"I hate to see that evenin' sun go down...   I hate to see that evenin' sun go down... ‘Cause it makes me feel I'm on my last go 'round."                

Usually, when Ma made an entrance to do her act the audience would, upon seeing her, give a standing ovation, and Ma would then go behind the stage to get ready for the act.  This time the audience didn’t look Ma’s way as she made her grand entrance.  The audience was too busy listening to Bessie sing "St. Louis Blues." 

Ma, Will and two of Ma's costumers moved quickly to the area behind the stage, which served as a last minute dressing room for the performers.  It was setup as a dressing room with mirrors, chairs, cots and small tables scattered throughout.  Jake was sitting in a chair next to the stage when he saw Ma and her entourage come behind the stage.  He turned his head as if he didn’t see her.  Ma made Will and the others stand at attention while she slowly walked over to Jake. 

"Where did you find that lil black bitch at?" Ma asked Jake.

When Jake heard Ma's voice, he jumped from the chair and said, "She found me... she found me, Ma!  I met her and her brother last week when I came here to lay out the show...  the kid was talkin’ 'bout she was a blues singer...  and she is," Jake said, timid as a child. 

"You always got some shit goin', Jake... you had best remember that I’m the star of this damn show!"

"Right, Ma! You the star... you the star," Jake said.

"You ain't so good with them damn snakes that I won't send yo' black ass packing." Ma said and then she walked back to where Will and the others were standing, and ordered them to follow her to an area with standing mirrors.  There, Ma got ready to go on stage.

"That Nigger is lyin’... he put that gal up to sing against me," Ma said to herself aloud.

"What you say, Ma?”

"Oh, nothin', Will... I was just talkin' to myself."

After Bessie finished her number the audience erupted in pandemonium.  The audience loved Bessie.  Jake could see why Ma was a little jealous.  Bessie was stealing her show.   When Bessie started down the ladder after doing her number, Jake made sure she didn’t meet Ma.  Jake had no idea what Ma would say to the young girl, so he rushed her far to the other side of the tent. 

"Hurry Bessie, go stand over there by them chairs, and wait for a minute," Jake pointed to a place away from the stage — this way, Bessie could not meet her as Ma made her way to the ladder to climb on the stage. 

By now, Ma was ready to do her act.  Will escorted his wife to the ladder and helped as she carefully climbed to the stage.  Before Ma took center stage the band struck up a drum roll and then the MC began his introduction of her. 

"Ladies and gentlemen... here is the moment you have been waiting for...  it gives me great pleasure to present a woman who is known to us all as the Mother of the Blues...  please give a big welcome to the one and only, Gertude 'Ma' Rainey!"

The audience was giving Ma a standing ovation as she walked to the center of the stage.  The bandleader had been given a melody of songs to play for Ma.  The band started off with Ma’s most famous tune, "Jealous Hearted Blues."  Next, came "Blame It On Me Blues," "Chain Gang Blues," "Trust No Man Blues," until Ma had the audience spellbound to her music.

Ma was putting much more into this performance because of Bessie, and the audience was having a good time.  At 31 years old, Ma was almost 20 years older than Bessie.  Singing on traveling shows for over 20 years made her look twice her age.  She was 50 pounds overweight.  She had gaps between her teeth with gold crowns on her front teeth.  Even with her unpleasant appearance, Ma still had her voice and was still considered the best blues singer in the world.

Ma finished her act with raving applause from the audience.  They were yelling, "We want mo’!  We want mo’!"
Immediately after doing her act, Ma made her way down the ladder.  As she reached the last step of the ladder, Jake reached out to help her to the ground.  Ma jerked her arm from Jake’s grasp and turned and said to him, "Let the lil bitch beat that!"



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