"Had a dream last night/That I was dead
Had a dream last night/That I was dead,
Evil spirits all around my bed. — Bessie Smith, "Blue Spirit Blues"
Bessie Smith would find her way to Memphis eventually, but the Empress of the Blues got her start singing in the Chattanooga streets. Like so many blues artists, Smith, whose life and times are chronicled in the The Devil's Music, opening at the Hattiloo this week, earned her royal title the hard way. When she was a child and food was scarce, Smith would sing and dance the corner of 13th and Elm Street in front of Chattanooga's White Elephant Saloon with her older brother Andrew playing guitar. Better times were on the way, though. At the height of her recording career, she was America's highest-earning black artist, headlining her own revue and touring the country in style in her own, customized boxcar.
The Devil's Music isn't a solo performance, but it might as well be. Although she has her bassist Pickles to riff with, this is a conversation between Smith and the audience, and pieces of the influential singer's colorful story are told between songs like "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and "Sugar in My Bowl."
Set in a Memphis buffet flat, where strong drink, girls, and games of chance are all available, The Devil's Music is a frank account of the hard-drinking, careless-loving, unapologetically bisexual singer's life. It takes audiences down to various crossroads as Bessie tells blue jokes and recounts her rise touring in minstrel shows with Ma Rainey, her triumphs and tribulations.