A Rare Treat: Bessie Smith’s 1929 Film Version of St. Louis Blues

I hate to see that evening sun go down
I hate to see that evening sun go down
'Cause, my baby, he's gone left this town
                   WC Handy

If you think you know the work of 1920s blues singer Bessie Smith, this might make you think again. We’ve all heard those barebones Columbia recordings of Smith’s powerful vocals over some pretty tinny-sounding accompaniments that comprise her output of 180 tracks recorded over a period of ten years, from 1923-1933.

In her day, Smith sang and recorded with renowned blues artists like Clarence Williams and Fletcher Henderson, as well as more modern names like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman. She’s considered the greatest blues singer ever, with the possible exception of rocker Janis Joplin, who started out singing a folky-blues version of Smith’s style but went on to carve a niche of her own that’s never really been imitated.

In 1929, WC Handy and Kenneth W Adams wrote a treatment for a short film based on Handy’s St Louis Blues. Handy was one of the biggest songwriters of his day, having penned the iconic Beale St Blues. Smith had already scored a major hit with St Louis Blues in a 1925 recording that featured a young Louis Armstrong on cornet.

When film studios RCA Phototone chimed in as producer on this project with its all African-American cast, Smith was hired to star in the role of a woman whose lover takes advantage of her every chance he gets. At just over 15-minutes, it was a curtain raiser for a variety of features between 1929 and 1932. Director Dudley Murphy had previously directed Le Ballet Mechanique!, a French avante garde classic.

Though Smith’s recording career was nearly over—sound films and the Great Depression ended what was left of what’s now known as the Classic Blues period, and Smith died in a car accident in 1937—she excels in this extended film version of her hit.

At 8 minutes and 47 seconds, it’s the longest track she ever recorded. (The 1925 version is 3 minutes and 12 seconds long.) She begins an a cappella recitative at 6 minutes and 44 seconds into the film, while lying on her bedroom floor after being abandoned by her lover Jimmy, played by dancer/actor Jimmy Mordecai.

The scene quickly jumps to a bar, where Bessie’s gone to drown her sorrows. Thankfully she’s in a mood to mourn out loud, and is soon joined by a jazz orchestra and full chorus in a superb accompaniment that clearly inspires her to perform Handy’s song (with just a touch of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue thrown in—apparently copyright wasn’t an issue back then) to the best of her remarkable abilities.

There are no other filmed versions of Smith’s artistry—whether singing or acting, live or otherwise—though due to technical limitations of the time, all of her records are literally ‘live’ takes, with the sound transferred directly from mouth to vinyl.

This is the most impressive performance I've heard by Bessie Smith, and I'm a long-time fan. It's truly a shame she wasn't given this kind of inspired backing a lot more often.  

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