At the Cabot, an all-star lineup genuflects to ‘Empress’ Bessie Smith
Since she joined the Berklee College of Music faculty as a professor of voice five years ago, Paula Cole has been introducing her young students to a century’s worth of masters.
“I’m always trying to show them we’re all part of a living river of music,” she says.
One such master is Bessie Smith, who earned the nickname “Empress of the Blues” as one of the biggest recording stars of the music industry’s early years. When producer Danny Melnick approached Cole about creating a special program for a centennial fund-raiser for Beverly’s historic Cabot theater, her first thought went to the performers who were working during the Cabot’s first decade, in the 1920s.
Bessie Smith, she says, was Billie Holiday’s favorite singer. That lineage has carried forward to Nina Simone and hip-hop contemporaries such as Erykah Badu and Queen Latifah, who played Smith in a 2015 HBO biopic.
“We all drink Bessie’s water,” says Cole.
For the Cabot’s gala, “Honoring Bessie Smith — Empress of the Blues,” which takes place Tuesday, Cole and Melnick have rounded up an all-star roster of independent-minded women, including Meshell Ndegeocello, Shemekia Copeland, Nona Hendryx, Valerie Simpson, and Terri Lyne Carrington. Each in their own way, the performers owe a clear debt to Smith, who sang about sadness and strength, poverty and high times, and sex and sexuality. Armloads of suggestive sexuality.
Each artist will present one song of Smith’s and one of her own. There’s been a playful struggle over who gets to do Smith’s signatures, including the blues standards “ ’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Cole plans to sing a lesser-known number, “Kitchen Man,” which is packed with Smith’s trademark innuendoes: “Oh, his baloney’s really worth a try/ Never fails to satisfy/ I can’t do without my kitchen man.”
“She could be so funny and outrageous,” says Cole, who won the best new artist Grammy Award in 1998 and released her latest album, “Ballads,” a collection of Great American Songbook covers, last year. “I was concerned this aspect of Bessie would not be voiced — the liberated female. It’s an important side of her.”
Hendryx, the space-age soul singer who wrote much of the material for Labelle, the group she performed in, says she first heard about Smith’s powerful stage presence on the black touring circuit of the 1960s, from Etta James and others.
Of the early blues women — Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace — “I didn’t totally identify with the sound, which, to my ears, seemed tinny and old-fashioned,” Hendryx says. “But Bessie had a more full-throated sound. And she said what she wanted to say. I like to write risque or political, social lyrics, and she was willing to do that 100 years ago, when women were not out of the kitchen yet.”
The “Honoring Bessie” bill also includes a couple of worthy participants with one fewer X chromosome than their counterparts. Multi-instrumentalist and music scholar Dom Flemons, known as the “American Songster,” cofounded the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He released a new solo album, “Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys,” earlier this year. And the ferocious guitarist Doyle Bramhall II has toured for years with Eric Clapton, who recorded his version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” with Derek and the Dominos in 1970.
Bramhall, whose new album, “Shades,” features an appearance by Clapton and a duet with Norah Jones, says he was pleasantly surprised to be asked to perform. His friend Ndegeocello had previously asked him to be part of her tribute to Nina Simone.
“Of all the songs and all the guests, she asked me to sing ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black,’ ” he recalls, speaking on the phone from California. “It was such a mind-twist to wrap my head around. A white male dude? Meshell said, ‘Yeah, it couldn’t be more perfect.’ ” He laughs. “If it was anybody else, I’d have said no.”
When he first saw the lineup for the Bessie Smith tribute, he had the same feeling, he says. “But I’m being asked for a reason, even if I think I’m the ugly duckling or something. I trust in the big picture, that the universe is working the way it needs to work.”
He thinks he’ll sing a relatively obscure Smith song, “Coffee Grindin’ Blues,” which, he says, is less vaudeville-style, like a lot of Smith’s music, and “more like the blues I grew up listening to, a la Charley Patton.”
“It means so much to me to be asked to do this kind of thing. That’s what music is about, from when I was 15 years old in my bedroom, listening to blues records and practicing all day.”
Cole grew up in Rockport, where she was studying Billie Holiday songs before she finished high school. She says she saw plenty of movies at the old Cabot, long before its ongoing renovations began a few years ago. Cole and her daughter now live in Beverly.
During the marathon five-day session for “Ballads,” she recorded a version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” that wasn’t included on the album. That will probably come out in a year or two, she says, on a new record with other tracks she still has in the can.
She dedicated “Ballads” to her father, Jim, a former college biology professor who moonlighted in a polka band. Spinning records at home, she says, “He would mix country, folk, jazz, and blues all together,” she says. “It was joyful and healing.”
At the Cabot, Cole will lead her guests in a similar blend of some of the best of American music. She can’t wait.
“It’s gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight, as Bessie would say.”
Honoring Bessie Smith
At the Cabot, Beverly, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. Tickets $59.50-$84.50 (VIP and Friends of the Cabot tickets also available), www.thecabot.org