A personal biography of Bessie Smith has been penned by Jackie Kay and recently published by Faber, providing an intimate insight into the life of Smith, but not only this but also Kay’s reasons for being drawn to the Blues musician. Bessie Smith is a riveting read, offering more than I have read previously on the Empress of Blues and her endurances as well as her temper and promiscuous lifestyle.
Jackie Kay was until very recently the Scots Makar in poetry but is also an award-winning writer renowned for her novel Trumpet and her biographical account, Red Dust Road. Born in Glasgow in 1961 to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, Kay was adopted by a white couple, Helen and John Kay, as a baby. Brought up in Bishopbriggs, a Glasgow suburb, she has an older adopted brother, Maxwell as well as siblings by her adoptive parents. After being gifted an album of Smith’s at a very young age she developed an affinity with Smith that was difficult to sought elsewhere.
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, particularly after her marriage to Jack Gee: 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 impressively 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 book Kay mixes biography, fiction, poetry and prose to create an enthralling account of an extraordinary life, and does it marvellously well, adding an intimacy you don’t receive from reading an entirely factual biographical account of Smith’s life. Listening to Smith, whilst indulging in this insight into her life and music, acclaim and raucous accounts of her life, this book left an imprint as I explored the talent and life of this artist. Insightful, harrowing and yet boldened with the beauty of the Blues, Kay’s biography of Smith is a great place to start for any curious music fan.