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Publisher's Summary

A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week.

Bessie Smith: singer, icon, pioneer.

Scotland's National Poet Jackie Kay brings to life the tempestuous story of the greatest blues singer who ever lived. 

Bessie Smith was born in Tennessee in 1894. Orphaned by the age of nine, she sang on street corners before becoming a big name in travelling shows. In 1923 she made her first recording for a new start-up called Columbia Records. It sold 780,000 copies and made her a star. Smith's life was notoriously difficult: she drank pints of 'bathtub gin', got into violent fist fights, spent huge sums of money and had passionate love affairs with men and women. She once single-handedly fought off a cohort of the Ku Klux Klan.

As a young black girl growing up in Glasgow, Jackie Kay found in Bessie someone with whom she could identify and who she could idolise. In this remarkable book Kay mixes biography, fiction, poetry and prose to create an enthralling account of an extraordinary life.

©2021 Jackie Kay (P)2021 Faber Audio

Critic Reviews

"A wonderful writer on a magnificent singer." (Robert Wyatt)

"A passionate, personal, imaginative insight into Bessie's art." (Daily Mail)

"Biographies don't usually bring the subject to life again. This one did. I finished the book then started it again immediately." (Peggy Seeger)

What listeners say about Bessie Smith

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  • 22-02-21

A fan's obsession

I'd already read and heard a lot about Bessie Smith and had been anticipating more about her life and music. Instead, the author describes her lifelong passion and obsession with the "Empress of the Blues". That perspective, in itself, proved an interesting listen as were the autobiographical details of the author's life interspersed throughout the book. I don't think I would have selected this book if I'd paid close attention to what it was actually about. As it turned out an enjoyable and diverting listen from my usual choices. Well narrated.

1 person found this helpful