Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, Reigns Again Off Broadway

Janis Joplin paid for the blues legend's tombstone; Miche Braden brings her back to life.

By , Columnist

Bessie Smith

Miche Braden has been channeling Bessie Smith for over a decade. Now she's bringing her show, The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, to the St. Luke's Theater Off Broadway, set to open June 22.

Braden, who also crafted the musical arrangements, plays the blues diva and sings over a dozen of her classics from the 1920s and '30s accompanied by a group of top musicians including Jim Hankins, her uncle, on bass. It's the singer's second collaboration with director Joe Brancato; earlier, they created Lady Day, about Billie Holiday. Though Braden says "it's basically my own concept of the music," audiences could be excused for feeling a shiver of recognition, as Bessie Smith's always full-on voice seems to pour unfiltered out of Braden.

When Smith died after a car accident in 1937 at the age of 43 (or 45 - birth records aren't definitive) she left a powerful legacy, but it took a third of a century and the initiative of Janis Joplin to erect a tombstone for Joplin's idol in 1970. Nineteen years later Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an "early influence." Joplin, long dead herself, joined Smith there in 1985, having once said Bessie Smith "showed me the air and taught me how to fill it."

But to experience the soul of Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, you needn't go back to her ancient, scratchy recordings or listen to singers she influenced. Starting in June, a trip to 46th Street will do the trick.

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Jon Sobel is a freelance writer, web editor, theater and music critic, marketing writer, and musician. His newest project is the blog Park Odyssey, where he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City - over a thousand of them.

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