Bessie Smith – (Part 2) – The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing

So a while back I started reading that the Cabot Theater in Beverly MA – a somewhat artsy town north of Boston – was going to have a night of tribute to Bessie Smith. (We saw Los Lobos here not too long ago.) I looked at the guest list and I thought, man, I gotta go to that. Plus, just the general idea seemed to be a good one, especially since it was also a fund-raiser for theater renovation. From what I could see, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see all these performers together. Here’s the rundown of who performed:

Paula Cole – She’s from Massachusetts originally and was the artistic director of this show. She won a Grammy Award back in the day for Best New Artist and had hits with “I Don’t Want to Wait” and “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” She still performs but also teaches at Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Doyle Bramhall II – Doyle is a guitarist who has played with everyone from the Fabulous Thunderbirds to Clapton to the Tedeschi/Trucks Band. A contemporary of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s, his father (a drummer) played on one of Stevie’s albums and he and Bramhall II used to jam and hang out together.
Terri Lynne Carrington is a Boston-based drummer and also a Berklee professor. She is, by and large, a jazz drummer. And my personal story is that years ago when I was playing in bands, I worked some menial job with her then-boyfriend Andre who A) turned me on to Prince and B) introduced me to Terri Lynne. We talked a little bit of music but she was jazz all the way and baby I’m a rocker.
Shemekia (pronounced Sha-MEEK-ah) Copeland is the daughter of the late, great Johnny Copeland. I’ve been following her career and even featured her once. First chance I had to see her.
Don Flemons was one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops whose singer Rhiannon Giddens I featured as part of a post on a disparate group of performers who put together an album of new music to old, unused Dylan lyrics.
Nona Hendryx was once part of the band Labelle (“Lady Marmalade”) and says she’s a distant cousin of another musical Hendrix. She covers everything from funk to soul to R&B and back again.
Meshell Ndegeocello is a singer and bassist who has worked with John Mellencamp, Bill Withers and Herbie Hancock among others and has about 12 solo albums to her name.
The Western Den – a Boston-based band – is probably the least known of this group. Hard to describe their sound, maybe ethereal, New Age-y. Essentially a keyboard/guitar duo who also had a violinist this night.
Valerie Simpson – maybe the most well-known of this group. Together with her late husband Nick Ashford, she not only performed but wrote so many popular songs that the duo are in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Think “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” “I’m Every Woman.” They wrote a few of the first couple of albums for Diana Ross and if that’s not enough, Valerie sang backup vocals on Blood, Sweat and Tears‘ debut album.

The basic concept was that each act would do two songs, one of their own and one of Bessie’s. While I enjoyed the show quite a bit, there were essentially two problems with this setup.

One was that just as an artist would get going, they were done. Then the stagehands had to move equipment around which lost some momentum. Plus if you look at the list above, most of them aren’t even really blues artists per se. So in doing their own tunes it kinda lost that focus. I’d opt for fewer artists and some that were a little blusier. But I quibble. Some highlights:

I liked Paula Cole’s songs but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. But boy, is she a fantastic singer. She played piano and sang and just belted it out. At one point she was holding a note for what seemed like an hour. Clearly she’s had classical training along the way. Here she is doing “Amen” which she did that night. (For the record, she also sang Bessie’s “Kitchen Man.”)

Terri Lynne’s band was on fire and boy, you had to be into a variety of styles that night as they were straight-up jazz all the way. Even her version of “St. Louis Blues” was more jazz than blues. I’ll save her for another song or two here and will certainly feature her again in a jazz rundown post.

Shemekia Copeland was the most natural blues performer. I cannot tell you which Bessie Smith tune she did. I’ll give you this one (not a Bessie tune) from her debut Alligator records album:

After a while the performers started to mix and match and at one point, Doyle Bramhall, Cole and Shemekia came on together and did a version of Dylan’s “Going, Going, Gone” that I wish I had video’d. Here’s Doyle doing it with Tedeschi Trucks Band from just a couple months ago:

Here’s a twofer – Valerie Simpson and Terri Lynne together at Berklee doing “I Don’t Need no Doctor.” Yes, the one that Humble Pie did but Ray Charles did it first. A great tune that I literally only know because of Humble Pie’s version:

At the end of the show, Cole came out and said that up in the dressing room they had decided to do a jam at the end and they just riffed on an old gospel tune called “Stand By Me.” Yeah, there were a few “who’s next” moments but it was great and the people who left early missed something.

Cole’s in the red bandanna, Nona, the white jacket, Shemekia the jeans and black top and Valerie the black coat and stockings. The white gal in black clothes is Deni Hlavinka of Western Den. Terri Lynne is on the skins, Meshell on bass. Don Flemons is on harp and of course, Bramhall is on the axe.

Now where else are you gonna hear this I ask you? A great night in honor of a great artist. For the record, they talked about Bessie some but the assumption is you knew a little bit about her. And they played this exact clip:


7 thoughts on “Bessie Smith – (Part 2) – The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing

    1. I know you’re not a big biopic guy but we watched the Bessie biopic and it’s pretty good. Very evocative of its era and from what I can tell, stays pretty close to the true story.

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        1. I’m probably downplaying it by saying that but very well-acted I think, something I think you’d appreciate. There’s also more going on in her story than I knew.

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