'The Devil's Music': Blues work their magic on Bessie Smith's life

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Miche Braden has that rich voice that tickles your soul and wakes up your sins. 

She makes you want to drink whiskey and get down and dirty, which is as it should be in "The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith."

Don't be surprised if you haven't heard of her or the show. It opens Wednesday, June 22, at St. Luke's Theatre, just half a block west of Broadway. 

The small basement theater gives this just the right intimacy. It feels like a blues club, which is where Bessie Smith (Braden) spun her magic. During the show, she talks with Jim Hankins on bass, Keith Loftis on sax, and Aaron Graves on piano.  

Bessie was so far ahead of her time, it's mind-boggling. She tells of being born into a one-room shack, where she was one of seven. Her parents died when she was young and she sang and danced on the streets for pennies strangers pitched.

Eventually, she sold 780,000 copies of her first record.

"Give me an 'Amen,'" she says. "That was 1923 and I am here to tell you there weren't that many Victrolas back then."

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Bessie Smith toured with Ma Rainey. This was before Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson and Ethel Waters. Smith was the real deal, with a voice and attitude that were so raw and so real you either fell under her spell or wanted to find a way to stop her.

Some, fools that they were, tried. She was lusty and enjoyed men and women. Think about fights over sexuality being waged today. Now imagine them a century earlier, and with a lone black woman who had the courage to follow her spirit and take no guff. Smith had enough bravery to face down the Klan, fight her estranged husband over custody of their adopted son, and stand up to bullying club owners.

She did it with a flask in one hand, and a voice that's inspired every blues singer since.

With no intermission, Angelo Parra's tightly written script, which is flawlessly performed, makes the 80 minutes fly by. We know from the start that this after-hours show, with Smith reflecting on her life -- all 43 years of it -- is her swan song. That night she was injured in a car crash and died the next day.

Even after she tells us that she has seen the angel of death, we hope that she's wrong. We need another song.
Photo/Video credit: John Quilty