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 18

             The rules that determined the winner of the singing Grand Finale were simple:  To determine the winner, three performers from the show would act as judges, and go out among the audience and monitor the audience's response to the two acts.  Then, they would vote on which act got the greatest applause from the audience. 

Sonny Riggins, Len Collins, and Abner Davis were the three judges.  Sonny Riggins was a nationally known blues singer who had written many of the popular blues songs of that time. Sonny had been with the show for over six years.  Len Collins and Abner Davis were a singing and dancing duo that had been with the show for four years.

Len Collins told Jake that he and Abner had missed Bessie’s performance and she had to do another.  "We missed judging' Bessie’s act  'cause we was late finishing our act."

"What you mean, man?"

"We missed Bessie's act... we heard her singin' 'St. Louis Blues' but we didn't see her do her act 'cause we was doin' our act," Len answered.  "Sonny didn't see her act either... and we all think the kid deserves another chance," Len continued.

Jake knew that to consider giving Bessie another shot at singing would be putting his neck on the line, but for the judging to be fair to Bessie he had to give her another chance to sing the blues. It was always good for the winner to perform last since the audience memory world be fresh on their minds.  For this reason Ma always sung last.

"Bessie!  Come here!" Jake called.  Bessie was still sitting quietly where Jake had told her to go.  She was completely unaware of the serious attention everybody was giving to her as a blues singer.   When Bessie heard

Jake call, she jumped to her feet and was in his face quick as a fly. 

"Bessie, you gotta do yo' act over again.  Don’t ask me why.  Do you know another song to sing?"

"I know a song me and Andrew wrote," Bessie answered.  "It’s called 'Po' Man’s Blues.'"

Jake then quickly walked over to the MC and told him to introduce Bessie for another number.

"She’ll be singin’ 'Po' Man’s Blues,'" Jake told the MC.

"Man, you gonna let her sing again?"

"Yeah, I wanna give the kid a chance... what the hell!" Jake said.

"Ma gonna be mad as hell.  She's gonna give you hell, you know that... don't you, Jake?"  The MC said. "Ma gonna give me hell too because she always said never let nobody be last but her.   But for you Jake, I'll do it and give the kid a chance against Ma.  Won’t that be something?   Beating Ma at her own game… Yeah, that will be something!"

The MC climbed to the stage and informed the band that Bessie would be doing one final song before the crowd to end the contest ­— she would be singing last.  Since the band did not know the music to "Po' Man’s Blues," the MC told the band to let Bessie start the song without music.  And afterwards, they could pick up on the melody and join in, plus, at the same time Jake was telling Bessie the same thing. 

"Bessie, you gotta start singin’ first, so the band can pick up on the melody; then they'll join in," Jake said to Bessie as he helped her to the stage.

As Bessie reached the top of the ladder and stepped on the stage, she heard the MC give her a great introduction:

"Ladies and gentleman... it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you once again, Bessie Smith, the Blues Singer. She will be performing a song she wrote with her brother called 'Po' Man’s Blues.' This will be the final song before the judging began."

The audience erupted into applause.  Most of the people in the audience cheering for Bessie were from Chattanooga and had heard her sing "Po' Man’s Blues" before.  She and Andrew had made the song up as a joke for how whites treated colored people in Chattanooga.

Hearing the MC introduce her like she was a real star, and hearing the audience's thunderous applause made Bessie very proud and confident.  Instead of going to the center of the stage, Bessie walked to where the band was. 

She took a few bows and waited until the audience stopped cheering before she started to sing. 

Bessie was close enough to the band so they could hear the melody clear.  In a high pitch, that the band could hear, Bessie started to sing:

Mister Rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind, Mister Rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind; give the po' man a chance, help stop these hard, hard times."  

Before Bessie could finish the first few lyrics to her song, the audience began to cheer.  Then, the band began to play. Bessie walked to the center of the stage, and began to pour out her heart to the cheering audience.

"While you livin' in your mansion, you don’t know what hard times mean, While you livin' in your mansion, you don’t know what hard times mean, Po' workin' man’s wife is starvin’, your wife is livin' like a queen."

The poor people in the audience could relate to what Bessie was singing because of the condition of their lives.  All that could be heard from them was, "tell the truth, Bessie... gal, you know you tellin' the truth," members of the audience were saying.

Bessie continued singing above the cheering crowd.

Please listen to my pleadin’, cause I can’t stand these hard times long, Won’t you listen to my pleadin’,  ‘cause I can’t stand these hard times long; they’ll make an honest man do things that you know is wrong."

Bessie repeated the lyrics to her song three times and each time the audience cheered louder and louder.  After the song, some people from the audience took to the stage to try to get a closer look at Bessie and to touch her hand.  

The audience turned to a crowd out of control.   Jake had to rush to the stage to protect Bessie.  People were falling and climbing over each other just to get a closer look at Bessie.  Like the superstar she would become, that night Bessie had to be protected from her own admirers.

When Jake got to the stage he had to wrestle Bessie away from the cheering crowd.  After he got Bessie off stage, Jake told her how well she had performed, and how proud he was of her.

"Bessie, I never thought that you could sing like that.  And I just can't believe that you wrote that song," Jake said with excitement. "I been singin' since I was a baby... but Mrs. Martin really showed me how to use my voice to change octaves.  Mrs. Martin said I got good rhythm too," Bessie said.

"Who is Mrs. Martin?"

"She's the teacher at our school," Bessie answered.

Bessie shocked Jake with her knowledge of music and how to use her voice to get the greatest effect from it.

"Bessie, you good, girl!  You the best I ever heard.  You even better than... no!  Don't let me say it," Jake said stopping short of saying what he really felt.  "Bessie, you real good! I mean you real good!"




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