Music from HBO’s “Bessie”
It is perhaps the major oddity of HBO’s “Bessie,” which premieres Saturday evening, that its music is not the most important part – and certainly not as you find it here on what purports to be the “Bessie” soundtrack.
The basic trouble is that the voice of Bessie Smith – the “Empress of the Blues” – was indeed one of the monarchic miracles of American music. And as fine as Queen Latifah is in her performance as Bessie Smith, her singing voice is by no means what carries it. She is certainly game to try to sing Smith’s music – “Young Woman Blues,” “Weepin’ Woman Blues” (with Pat Bass), “Down Hearted Blues,” “Work House Blues,” “Long Old Road.” But in place of Smith’s steel pipes, Latifah’s seem too suave and smooth to occupy the necessary territory, as game as she is. When you hear, at the end of this disc, a remix of Smith’s “Gimme a Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer” with Queen Latifah added through the magic of recording, it is abundantly apparent how Latifah is doing her best to simulate something which simply can’t, in any way, be simulated.
It doesn’t help at all that on this same disc, there is a moment of another singer that is true blues singing in the Ma Rainey/Bessie Smith tradition – Sippie Wallace singing “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman.”
On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt that a couple of Louis Armstrong classics are here to give you the flavor of the time – “Weary Blues” and “Black and Blue.” And no disc is ever a waste with Fats Waller’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” on it.
But it’s not the music that make “Bessie” so worthwhile on Saturday evening. It’s that finally, the story of one of the giant figures in American music is being told in a way genuinely attentive to her life, her music and her racial and gender significance.
Better than this, frankly, might have been Legacy giving us a one disc selection of Smith originals, with other original music from the time used in the show and other classic Smith recordings: “Empty Bed Blues,” “It Won’t Be You,” “Send me to the Electric Chair” etc.
– Jeff Simon