This month, Rubicon Theatre brings audiences the musical biography of the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith. The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith presents the vivid, glamorous life of the early-20th-century blues sensation, from impoverished roots in the Deep South to historical and musical prominence as an esteemed African-American performer in a time of segregation.
Born a preacher’s daughter in Chattanooga, Smith began her career as a star of vaudeville before becoming a recording artist and blues singer. Her short life was marked by the capricious hand of fame and fortune: By the mid-1920s, she was the country’s highest-paid black performer. Smith’s bigger-than-life personality, her signature musical styling, and her well-known hits (“I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”) are the centerpiece of the Rubicon’s production.
Smith developed a reputation that reflected her hard-partying lifestyle, and by the early 1930s, she’d fallen on difficult times. Life and Blues opens with Smith and her band in Memphis in 1937, shortly before Smith’s death. When a segregated theater disallows Smith and her band to perform, the musicians instead patronize a watering hole where Smith shares the story of her life in entertainment. Smith, who recorded with legendary talents such as Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, tells her story like the blues anthems she made timeless — with a big heart and a big voice.
411: The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith runs February 25-March 12, at the Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St., Ventura). Call 667-2900 or see rubicontheatre.org.