Special to Amalgamation by A. Scott Galloway
Two years ago, Amalgamation reported on an in-the-works biographical motion picture on the life of pioneering blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937) – “Empress of the Blues” – that was being prepared by the artist’s estate. Since then, HBO Films has stepped into the ring with a star-studded Bessie Smith movie for television with Queen Latifah in the starring role. How will this affect the projects that were already in motion? Amalgamation returns to the source to glean for you the latest.
Beverly Ann Clarke, granddaughter of Bessie Smith and head of her estate, along with Lindsay Guion, will serve as Special Consultants to HBO Films throughout the making of the movie. “The estate’s primary goal is to preserve and enhance the legacy of the legendary Ms. Bessie Smith,” Guion states. “Though the estate still has many plans to carry forward Bessie Smith’s unprecedented story, including a theatrical musical film, we feel this movie for television will create key awareness among viewers who do not yet know who she was. They have a great all-star cast that will connect those important, and we’re absolutely excited about how their project can fit into our plan. The estate wants to insure that the Bessie Smith brand will shine again.”
HBO Films has partnered with Zanuck Co. to produce a biographical Bessie Smith telepic entitled “Bessie” a/k/a “Blue Goose Hollow,” named after the area in Chattanooga, Tennessee where the legendary Roaring `20s entertainer was born and raised. It will be scripted and directed by Dee Rees with source material being the Chris Albertson biography, “Bessie.” At press time, the telepic was still being cast but already has the following attached: Oscar-winner Mo’Nique will play Smith’s legendary peer Blues singer “Ma Rainey;” Charles S. Dutton will play William “Pa” Rainey, husband and partner to Ma Rainey (Note: Dutton was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of “Levee Greene” in the Broadway production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom written by August Wilson); Michael Epps will play “Richard Morgan,” bootlegger and romantic interest to Bessie Smith. Tika Sumpter plays Lucille, a chorus girl in Bessie’s troupe; Khandi Alexander will play Bessie Smith’s mother “Laura;” and Michael K. Williams will play Bessie’s spouse “Jack Gee.”
Bessie Smith was a pioneer not only for Black recording artists and women in general but for the American recording industry as a whole. Blessed with a powerful voice that cut through the shellac and static of early recording techniques and with a sass that delighted folks of all persuasions, The Empress recorded 160 sides for Columbia Records in the `20s and `30s that transcended the realms of Blues music and “race records.” Her biggest hits included “Downhearted Blues” (1923), “Empty Bed Blues” (1928) and “St. Louis Blues” (1925) which she later reprised on the big-screen in the two-reeler
Black cast film in 1929 (with Fletcher Henderson’s band, a chorus AND strings – highly unusual and grand for the time). Beyond her artistry, Bessie Smith is a fascinating figure for the struggles she endured as a woman – a Black woman – her marriage, her lovers (male and female), her fierce work ethic, her legendary run-in with the Ku Klux Klan, her business dealings and more – all of which will play well in today’s marketplace as folks will see “the more things change the more they stay the same.”
Because the Bessie Smith estate is in the process of creating its own film, it was understandably initially resistant to HBO’s movie for television project. “When Beverly and I first discussed this HBO project, I sent them a cease and desist letter,” says Guion. “After some thought, we decided to see if we can all work together. What we’ve settled upon is to work in a non-exclusive capacity so that when we go forward with our big-screen version, there is nothing to hinder us from doing so. That’s why Beverly is so excited about what’s happening because we still have the freedom to do what we’re doing plus be on board as part of this HBO piece as well. The estate does have some say in how the image is portrayed – we want to make sure that they are not tarnishing the brand. HBO agreed with us so we’re absolutely happy.”
Ms. Clarke adds, “Initially I was almost afraid to get too excited because of disappointments I’ve had in the past. But I strongly believe that Bessie’s story needs to be told and now is the time to tell it. I want people to know her music, the kind of family person she was – very big on family – and the things she went through on her way to becoming the highest paid Black entertainer of her era.”
The Bessie Smith estate has many more endeavors on the front burner to preserve her legacy. In a New York City ceremony held June 9, performance rights organization ASCAP honored Bessie and other jazz luminaries by adding her name to the distinguished ASCAP Wall of Fame. There’s the licensing of her music in all appropriate areas. Her publishing assets are overseen by co-owners Sony/ATV Music Publishing and Paul McCartney-founded MPL Music Publishing, a company renowned for sensitive and honest handling of historical art copyrights. A “star” for Bessie Smith on the Hollywood Walk of fame is in the works as is a reissue of the Bessie Smith Postage stamp for which 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the original.
Biggest of all future plans include a “Bessie” on Broadway musical (very timely with the recent successes of “Jersey Boys” and “Motown the Musical”) as well as a Las Vegas counterpart. An all-star tribute concert and commemorative album as well as the aforementioned theatrical motion picture to boast both a score and a soundtrack album. “Going after artists and entities for all of these projects will be so much easier now that the dots are being connected via Queen Latifah’s attachment to the HBO movie,” Guion admits. “Just last year, a lot of people didn’t know who Bessie Smith was! The looks on the faces of people you would have thought knew her…when I mentioned her name, they were embarrassed but they simply did not know her. We’ll have a better chance getting that star power now. Plus because the HBO movie is not for theatrical release, there will be certain storylines and events missing from their film that our big- screen and Broadway projects will pick up.”
A final concern has been the need to crack down on unauthorized Bessie Smith-related items, something that is sure to rear its head again with the trailblazer’s newfound popularity and awareness. “People have jumped out there creating t-shirts and images that we’ve had to put a stop to,” Guion admits, “and we will vehemently continue to do so.”
It’s been a long road for Bessie’s granddaughter Beverly – now 73– who became the sole living heiress/trustee to the estate after the passing of her grandmother Smith, her grandfather Jack Gee, and then her father Jack Gee Jr. When the HBO film makes its bow in 2015, she hopes it will trigger a windfall domino effect for her legendary loved one. Humming “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” – the song of Bessie’s she says speaks loudest and clearest to her of the essence of who she was – what she wants most now is to see this all transpire in her lifetime.
“The story should’ve been told long ago, but the time is now,” Beverly says. “I’m ready for it to be brought to the big-screen, so that the world knows the kind of entertainer Bessie Smith was; the extraordinary life she led, the struggles she endured, and the wonderful person she was.”