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The Story Is Told

Ethel and Bessie

Bessie Smith portrait by Carl Van Vechten b.jpg

Bessie Smith portrait by Carl Van Vechten

The following extract is from Ethel Waters in Hear Me Talkin' To Ya  edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff.


"Bessie Smith was booked into 91 Decatur Street while I was working there. Bessie was a heavy-set, dark woman and very nice looking. Along with Ma Rainey, she was undisputed tops as a blues singer.

Bessie's shouting brought worship wherever she worked. She was getting fifty to seventy-five dollars a week, big money for our kind of vaudeville. The money thrown to her brought this to a couple of hundred dollars a week. Bessie, like an opera singer, carried her own claque with her. These plants in the audience were paid to throw up coins and bills to get the appreciation money going without delay the moment she finished her first number.

Bessie was in a pretty good position to dictate to the managers. She had me put on my act for her and said I was a long goody. But she also told the men who ran No 91 that she didn't want anyone else on the bill to sing the blues. I agreed to this, I could depend a lot on my shaking, though I never shimmied vulgarly and only to express myself. And when I went on I sang I Want To Be Somebody's Baby Doll So I Can Get My Lovin' All The Time. But before I could finish this number the people out front started howling, 'Blues! Blues! Come on, Stringbean, we want your blues!'

[Here is Ethel Waters in the 1920s singing Shake That Thing. The recoding was banned when it was first released.]

"Before the second show the manager went to Bessie's dressing room and told her he was going to revoke the order forbidding me to sing any blues. He said he couldn't have another such rumpus. There was quite a stormy discussion about this, and you could hear Bessie yelling things about 'these Northern bitches.' Now nobody could have taken the place of Bessie Smith. People everywhere loved her shouting with all their hearts and were loyal to her. But they wanted me too.

When I closed my engagement in that theatre, Miss Bessie called me to her. 'Come here, long goody,' she said. 'You ain't so bad. It's only that I never dreamed that anyone would be able to do this to me in my own territory and with my own people. And you know damn well that you can't sing worth a -----.'"

Ethel Waters

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