In 1988, singer/actress Miche Braden appeared on the stage of People’s Light & Theatre as jazz singer Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” She’s returning 25 years later, this time in the guise of another legendary singer: Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues.” While Smith was a major influence on Holiday, the two are very different singers — Smith a rough-hewn blues belter, Holiday a tortured romantic.
Playing the two women is a completely different experience on more than a musical level, according to Braden. In “Lady Day,” she says, “Billie was at the end of her life and had been ravaged by drugs and the loss of love. Bessie was still very much in her prime, even though the blues were not as popular at the time she passed away. So I had to put a lot of physical energy into Bessie, where Billie required a more emotional energy, which is rough in itself.”
“The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” is set in 1937, on the evening before Smith’s tragic death in a car accident. The occasion is a performance in a Memphis "buffet flat," the after-hours clubs where African-American artists and audiences would gather. “I wanted to play her raw,” Braden says. “I wanted to play her in her element.”
The play is part theater, part concert, and Braden leads a skilled jazz band through Smith’s repertoire. The group includes her uncle, bassist Jim Hankins, as well as pianist Aaron Graves and either Keith Loftis or Anthony Nelson Jr. on saxophone. “I’m a protégé of some of the best jazz musicians in Detroit,” says Braden, who was mentored by Earl Van Dyke, keyboardist for Motown house band the Funk Brothers, and pianist and educator Harold McKinney. “They taught me to arrange music, to talk to musicians and to convey what it is that I want. The lifestyle, the way the musicians talk, the way they live is not that different from Bessie Smith’s day to now. So I wanted musicians who lived this life to play the music.”
A gifted performer in her own right, Braden counts Smith among her influences and hopes the show will expose the former Philadelphian’s music to new listeners. “I pray that people will look her up and listen to her music,” Braden says, “and that young people will reach further back than nineties music to see where rock and the blues came from and maybe even fuel their own music.”
'The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith'
Oct. 16-Nov. 24
People’s Light & Theatre
39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern