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Bessie Smith: A Poet's Biography of a Blues Legend

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A beautiful genre-bending tribute to the larger-than-life blues singer Bessie Smith. Scotland's National Poet blends poetry, prose, fiction, and nonfiction to create an entirely unique biography of the Empress of the Blues. There has never been anyone else like Bessie Smith. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894 and orphaned by the age of nine, Bessie Smith sang on street A beautiful genre-bending tribute to the larger-than-life blues singer Bessie Smith. Scotland's National Poet blends poetry, prose, fiction, and nonfiction to create an entirely unique biography of the Empress of the Blues. There has never been anyone else like Bessie Smith. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894 and orphaned by the age of nine, Bessie Smith sang on street corners before becoming a big name in traveling shows. In 1923, she made her first recording for the newly founded Columbia Records. It sold 780,000 copies and catapulted her to fame. Known for her unmatched vocal talent, her timeless and personal blues narratives, her tough persona, and her ability to enrapture audiences with her raw voice, the Empress of the Blues remains a force and an enigma. In this remarkable book, Kay combines history and personal narrative, poetry and prose to create an enthralling account of an extraordinary life, and to capture the soul of the woman she first identified with as a young Black girl growing up in Glasgow. Powerful and moving, Bessie Smith is at once a vivid biography of a central figure in American music history and a personal story about one woman's search for recognition. A VINTAGE ORIGINAL.


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A beautiful genre-bending tribute to the larger-than-life blues singer Bessie Smith. Scotland's National Poet blends poetry, prose, fiction, and nonfiction to create an entirely unique biography of the Empress of the Blues. There has never been anyone else like Bessie Smith. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894 and orphaned by the age of nine, Bessie Smith sang on street A beautiful genre-bending tribute to the larger-than-life blues singer Bessie Smith. Scotland's National Poet blends poetry, prose, fiction, and nonfiction to create an entirely unique biography of the Empress of the Blues. There has never been anyone else like Bessie Smith. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894 and orphaned by the age of nine, Bessie Smith sang on street corners before becoming a big name in traveling shows. In 1923, she made her first recording for the newly founded Columbia Records. It sold 780,000 copies and catapulted her to fame. Known for her unmatched vocal talent, her timeless and personal blues narratives, her tough persona, and her ability to enrapture audiences with her raw voice, the Empress of the Blues remains a force and an enigma. In this remarkable book, Kay combines history and personal narrative, poetry and prose to create an enthralling account of an extraordinary life, and to capture the soul of the woman she first identified with as a young Black girl growing up in Glasgow. Powerful and moving, Bessie Smith is at once a vivid biography of a central figure in American music history and a personal story about one woman's search for recognition. A VINTAGE ORIGINAL.

30 review for Bessie Smith: A Poet's Biography of a Blues Legend

  1. 4 out of 5

    Alwynne

    Poet Jackie Kay’s telling of the life of legendary singer Bessie Smith, “Empress of the Blues” who performed to packed-out venues across America in the 1920s. Kay mingles fact with imagined scenes and personal recollections tracing her own obsession with Smith’s work, dating back to being given one of her recordings as an adopted child in an almost totally white Glasgow; somehow listening to Smith’s voice and lyrics was a catalyst for Kay’s understanding and exploration of her own identity as bl Poet Jackie Kay’s telling of the life of legendary singer Bessie Smith, “Empress of the Blues” who performed to packed-out venues across America in the 1920s. Kay mingles fact with imagined scenes and personal recollections tracing her own obsession with Smith’s work, dating back to being given one of her recordings as an adopted child in an almost totally white Glasgow; somehow listening to Smith’s voice and lyrics was a catalyst for Kay’s understanding and exploration of her own identity as black and lesbian. Kay doesn’t adopt a standard linear approach to Smith’s story here, instead she highlights aspects of Smith’s life and career: from her discovery, her disastrous marriage to abusive, manipulative Jack Gee, her numerous on the road affairs with women, to her recording contracts, unanticipated fame and flamboyant showmanship. Kay uses Smith’s experiences to consider what it was like to be both a celebrity and a black working-class woman in early 20th-century America, the lavish spending, the riotous ‘rent’ parties with flowing bootleg liquor and pigs’ foot stew, the ‘buffet flats’ that catered for every sexual whim, confrontations with the Klan, the relentless racism encountered on tour, the impact of colourism, and finally the almost-inevitable fall from grace. I love Bessie Smith’s voice but apart from Queen Latifah’s recent biopic, I know almost nothing about her and I thought Kay did a reasonable job of sketching out key facts but I found the juxtaposition of memoir and biography and the disjointed structure often less than satisfying, Kay’s enthusiasm for Smith shines through at various points, and the portrait of Smith’s larger-than-life personality is decent enough, but there are quite a few sections that stray into rather flat, laundry-list territory. The passages linking Smith's personal history to wider issues around race and representation were probably the most engaging ones and it’s a shame that these weren’t more sustained. So, although I think this is an okay piece for any Smith fans, I’m not sure it’s the best place to start for readers who aren’t already interested in her and her music.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Vivienne Muller

    Read this as part of a historical research project... It's not bad, but I would not call it a good book. Te structure is ambitious but not well executed, it's at times difficult to tell the difference between an extended citation and a fictional addition of the author. I did however enjoy the honest dedication to pressing Bessie Smith's queerness, and there are many interesting anecdotes in the book as well as good poetry. The most disappointing thing is the writing quality. It feels like it was Read this as part of a historical research project... It's not bad, but I would not call it a good book. Te structure is ambitious but not well executed, it's at times difficult to tell the difference between an extended citation and a fictional addition of the author. I did however enjoy the honest dedication to pressing Bessie Smith's queerness, and there are many interesting anecdotes in the book as well as good poetry. The most disappointing thing is the writing quality. It feels like it was written for children and much of the historical context feels oversimplified (potentially because the author is from Scotland and the audience may be one unfamiliar with US history). The book is too sentimental and personal to be written badly.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Charlie Williams

    Interesting and passionate account of the life, times and tribulations of this amazing talent. Made me want to listen to her.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ayre

    I got this book in a book box and I think placing it in that book box was a disservice to the author due to the fact that this book is a very niche subject. I'm entirely sure it has its audience but I don't think the readers of a queer book box for teens IS that audience. My rating of this book is based on my own enjoyment of it. If you are specifically seeking out information about Bessie Smith you're already much more likely to enjoy this book. Lets get into what I felt about this book. The aut I got this book in a book box and I think placing it in that book box was a disservice to the author due to the fact that this book is a very niche subject. I'm entirely sure it has its audience but I don't think the readers of a queer book box for teens IS that audience. My rating of this book is based on my own enjoyment of it. If you are specifically seeking out information about Bessie Smith you're already much more likely to enjoy this book. Lets get into what I felt about this book. The author is very obviously obsessed with Bessie Smith and that bias of fandom bleeds through often. This makes what should be a unbiased biography into more of fan fiction. Often times the author makes up fictional stories of what she thought Bessie or someone who interacted with Bessie would do in a situation where there is little information on whatever is being referenced (ie what Bessie was thinking as she died). Its honestly incredibly creepy if you don't take into account that the author isn't typically a non-fiction writer. I don't think there is a whole lot of actual information on Bessie's life so this felt very repetitive in order to flesh out the book. The author is also very much a fan of lists which not only annoys me but make the book feel like its being written for someone just learning to read (please note content in this book is not for children). There are also a lot of contradictions that I just didn't understand. For example, at one point the author is talking about Bessie fighting a lot and says she always uses her fists and never her words but then jumps into a story of Bessie yelling at people with no physical altercation involved. The author also references how Bessie's story is in her music often. How Bessie's music is her true autobiography... but Bessie barely wrote any of the songs she sang. The final problem I had was what felt like a lot of unnecessary micro-aggressions. Bessie COULD NOT be described in this book without calling her fat in some why. Her weight was mentioned more than any other physical descriptor and there were whole sections on the racism she experienced. The other thing that bothered me was the shame involved around her sapphic sexual encounters. Her queerness was almost exclusively linked to her alcoholism. I couldn't tell if Bessie herself or the author was ashamed of Bessie's love of women. As far as recommending this book, I obviously wouldn't. If you want a true biography this isn't it. Maybe try Bessie by Chris Albertson (Its the most frequently referenced book but I haven't read it so I don't know if its actually good). This book is strictly for people looking for somewhat accurate fan fiction presented as actual fact.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Morgan

    When Kay imagines Smith’s life—a rhythmic reciting of the contents of a lost trunk or a daydreamed conversation between Smith and her mentor Ma Rainey—this book transcends, taking you to the place Smith held deep within her, the well from which the blues flowed. Those moments are so strong they carry the story overall, which at times feels more like an essay on Smith, a recitation of facts that framed the blues legend’s life. I’m sure this is due to lack of source material—but as a reader I wish When Kay imagines Smith’s life—a rhythmic reciting of the contents of a lost trunk or a daydreamed conversation between Smith and her mentor Ma Rainey—this book transcends, taking you to the place Smith held deep within her, the well from which the blues flowed. Those moments are so strong they carry the story overall, which at times feels more like an essay on Smith, a recitation of facts that framed the blues legend’s life. I’m sure this is due to lack of source material—but as a reader I wish Kay had been more courageous in filling in those gaps with imagined passages more often: America dreamed of Smith when she was famous; let us dream of the queen of the blues now, too.

  6. 5 out of 5

    David Ward

    This is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary character. Bessie Smith comes over as larger than life, a legend in life and death. I listened to some of her many recordings while I read, and hers was a voice that still sounds great despite early recording techniques. She is one woman in the same line as Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse - all great, all tragic figures. Bessie is probably the most outrageous of them all. Author Jackie Kay presents a personal view of Bessie that This is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary character. Bessie Smith comes over as larger than life, a legend in life and death. I listened to some of her many recordings while I read, and hers was a voice that still sounds great despite early recording techniques. She is one woman in the same line as Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse - all great, all tragic figures. Bessie is probably the most outrageous of them all. Author Jackie Kay presents a personal view of Bessie that has been present most of Jackie's life, being lucky enough to be introduced to the blues and jazz at an early age. This is well worth reading. It becomes clear that, as Bessie's gravestone proclaims, "The Greatest Blues Singer In The World Will Never Stop Singing."

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jacquie

    She tells us about Bessie's life and delves into her lyrics but she mostly tells us why Bessie is important to the world and to her. 'My life was changed by Bessie's blues. My soul was converted. Any good art transforms you, makes you ask yourself questions about the world you live in, people, laws, yourself. Any good art can change the way you look at yourself.' Her life was incredibly dramatic and there is so much missing from what we know about her despite her fame. Partly because of the time a She tells us about Bessie's life and delves into her lyrics but she mostly tells us why Bessie is important to the world and to her. 'My life was changed by Bessie's blues. My soul was converted. Any good art transforms you, makes you ask yourself questions about the world you live in, people, laws, yourself. Any good art can change the way you look at yourself.' Her life was incredibly dramatic and there is so much missing from what we know about her despite her fame. Partly because of the time and because there was so long before the first biography that much information was lost. Jackie Kay leans into this in the telling and imagines what is missing, in clearly indicated and very beautiful ventures into the version she imagines. In one she describes the contents of a lost trunk of Bessie's effects that have made their way safely to Scotland rather than being lost, among them are 'A bottle of bootleg liquor and a pint glass with a lipstick imprint of the lips of the Empress. A horsehair wig - shiny black hair that once long ago ran all the way down to the round shoulders of Bessie Smith. A strand of pearls and imitation rubies. A satin dress. Headgear that looks like a lampshade in someone's front room with lots of tassels hanging down. A plain dress with beaded fringed.......A reject selection of songs that were never released. A giant pot of chicken stew still steaming, its lid tilted to the side. ' It is a good read and her love pours through the pages and it sends you back to the songs.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Vicky Burns Bellman

    'There is the perception, on the one hand, of the blues as lowlife (the view of middle class jazz fans and critics) and on the other hand, the blues as high life, royalty (for classic blues singers and their fans). This combination can't be bettered: the result is a Black working class queen'. Such an interesting and moving short book, a book you could really feel. Particularly moving that this working class queer Black woman is profiled by a working class lesbian Black woman. This is the power o 'There is the perception, on the one hand, of the blues as lowlife (the view of middle class jazz fans and critics) and on the other hand, the blues as high life, royalty (for classic blues singers and their fans). This combination can't be bettered: the result is a Black working class queen'. Such an interesting and moving short book, a book you could really feel. Particularly moving that this working class queer Black woman is profiled by a working class lesbian Black woman. This is the power of own voices - because I've read a fair few musical biographies in my time (of white people and people of colour, of straight and queer people) and they've never captured the meaningfulness of a contribution of an artist to the culture as this one did. Jackie Kay outlined both the meaning Bessie had to the Black community at the time, and the meaning Bessie had to Jackie growing up adopted in a white Scottish village. And by doing that she made the Empress come alive. A legacy that should be remembered forever; a keeper of Black history and legacy and longing. The rage and tempest, the lack of impulse control, the generosity, the binges, the addiction. The chronic childhood trauma of early orphaning, and being raised by siblings. The mean men. The trauma of poverty and racism. A passionate heart and a pure gift. Rest well, Bessie Smith.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Diane

    Jackie Kay brought Bessie Smith to life with her wonderful prose. This was a no-holds bar account of a woman who had a voice that brought droves of people to see her but had several things against her that overshadowed her life - rampant racisms - she was African American, she was bisexual, she was a female, she was an alcoholic (which probably would have led to an early demise due to cirrhosis but it was a car accident that took Bessie when she was in her thirties) and due to her drinking Bessi Jackie Kay brought Bessie Smith to life with her wonderful prose. This was a no-holds bar account of a woman who had a voice that brought droves of people to see her but had several things against her that overshadowed her life - rampant racisms - she was African American, she was bisexual, she was a female, she was an alcoholic (which probably would have led to an early demise due to cirrhosis but it was a car accident that took Bessie when she was in her thirties) and due to her drinking Bessie Smith would become violent. She was abused by her second husband - a no talent hack who only stole from her even after she died and by family who although they loved the gifts Bessie lavished upon them such as houses they couldn't even give the Empress of the Blues a proper gravestone. And of course Columbia Records took advantage of her and never paid Bessie any royalties despite the fact that one of her records sold over 780,000 copies in a seven month period and that was back in the 20's or the 30's. That was simply amazing. Most music is derived from things that happen in life and Bessie Smith was one of the best, if not the best, at telling stories thru song whether it was the abuse she suffered or the hooch she drank. Another artist gone too soon.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Emily Brownsey

    I loved this book. I felt so connected to both the author and Bessie smith from start to finish. In the beginning, Jackie Kay describes what it’s like to feel a sense of comfort, belonging and intimacy with a figure you’ve never met. I’ve also had this, what feels to be a life long fictional relationship with multiple artists whose voices ground me & ‘understand’ me; the likes of aretha, Amy, Paul weller, Brittany Howard etc. There’s one page where Jackie Kay describes the presence of these blue I loved this book. I felt so connected to both the author and Bessie smith from start to finish. In the beginning, Jackie Kay describes what it’s like to feel a sense of comfort, belonging and intimacy with a figure you’ve never met. I’ve also had this, what feels to be a life long fictional relationship with multiple artists whose voices ground me & ‘understand’ me; the likes of aretha, Amy, Paul weller, Brittany Howard etc. There’s one page where Jackie Kay describes the presence of these blues women, from how they shimmy to how their tragedy is portrayed in their lyrics and I must have read it 10 times. I was heartbroken to learn about Bessie’s abusive relationships and her difficult dynamic with her family, label and her money. An artist can “convert” your soul as Jackie Kay said, and I couldn’t agree more. This is a tragic story of an unbelievably chaotic blues woman that I plan to buy some records of if I can get my hands on some!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jay Gabler

    The brilliance of this book is that it embraces the Empress of the Blues in all her complexity. We start where Jackie Kay did, with competing images of the artist in agony and ecstasy; then we turn to the music, and learn more about the life. Along the way, Kay is frank about what we can know, what we never know, and what's none of our damn business. While few readers will achieve the depth of Kay's fascination, they'll at least all learn not merely to think of Bessie Smith when they're down and The brilliance of this book is that it embraces the Empress of the Blues in all her complexity. We start where Jackie Kay did, with competing images of the artist in agony and ecstasy; then we turn to the music, and learn more about the life. Along the way, Kay is frank about what we can know, what we never know, and what's none of our damn business. While few readers will achieve the depth of Kay's fascination, they'll at least all learn not merely to think of Bessie Smith when they're down and out: this singer brought joy to millions, as well as voicing their pain. I reviewed Bessie Smith: A Poet's Biography of a Blues Legend for The Current.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tallon Kennedy

    This is wonderful. An imaginative, poetic biography of blues-singing phenomenon Bessie Smith, but it's more than that. Kay's imagination and intimate writing here is vivid and engaging. And, it really rewrites what we consider "biography" and how we approach searching for queerness and recovering queerness from the archives. Genre-bending, time-bending, truth-bending, this is one hell of a (non)/fictional (auto)/biography. 8/10 This is wonderful. An imaginative, poetic biography of blues-singing phenomenon Bessie Smith, but it's more than that. Kay's imagination and intimate writing here is vivid and engaging. And, it really rewrites what we consider "biography" and how we approach searching for queerness and recovering queerness from the archives. Genre-bending, time-bending, truth-bending, this is one hell of a (non)/fictional (auto)/biography. 8/10

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ruth Brumby

    A very interestingly written book about how we imagine the lives of figures whop are important to us, about how stories grow around figures who are important to many people, about the things we know and cannot know about Bessie Smith and about how our knowledge and understanding of someone's life is influenced by the times that recorded the information and the times in which we read that information. A very interestingly written book about how we imagine the lives of figures whop are important to us, about how stories grow around figures who are important to many people, about the things we know and cannot know about Bessie Smith and about how our knowledge and understanding of someone's life is influenced by the times that recorded the information and the times in which we read that information.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Olatomi Afilaka

    This was a great tribute to a great person of blues I enjoyed learning about the history of her life. It speaks of a time that despite her wealth and fame women were still second class citizens. It also show how Jackie Kay in search for a reflection of herself as an adopted child latched on the icon.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca Stonehill

    Fascinating account of the turbulent life and tragic death of 'Empress of the Blues' Bessie Smith. I listened to Jackie Kay narrating the audio and loved the way she wove in details of her own life and upbringing and how, as a young adopted black girl growing up in inner-city, predominantly white Glasgow, she became fascinated by Bessie Smith. Fascinating account of the turbulent life and tragic death of 'Empress of the Blues' Bessie Smith. I listened to Jackie Kay narrating the audio and loved the way she wove in details of her own life and upbringing and how, as a young adopted black girl growing up in inner-city, predominantly white Glasgow, she became fascinated by Bessie Smith.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    A mixture of biography, prose and short poems that tells the life of a remarkable individual, who lived an incandescent life. A great way to illuminate Bessie Smith's story and clearly written with a lot of enthusiasm and love by Jackie Kay. Her excitement as a teenager in discovering Bessie Smith comes through in the book, and makes you share her passion. A mixture of biography, prose and short poems that tells the life of a remarkable individual, who lived an incandescent life. A great way to illuminate Bessie Smith's story and clearly written with a lot of enthusiasm and love by Jackie Kay. Her excitement as a teenager in discovering Bessie Smith comes through in the book, and makes you share her passion.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    I do not normally read biographies but this came highly recommended. I enjoyed the story of Bessie's life and the times she lived through were told vividly. There is also a lot of contemplation of the lyrics of her songs which were not so interesting to me and not a small amount of repetition. Overall it was OK and I'm pleased to have read it. I do not normally read biographies but this came highly recommended. I enjoyed the story of Bessie's life and the times she lived through were told vividly. There is also a lot of contemplation of the lyrics of her songs which were not so interesting to me and not a small amount of repetition. Overall it was OK and I'm pleased to have read it.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Donna Holland

    Always loved The Empress of the Blues so this book just adds to my knowledge .What an amazing life she led - every bit as fiesty and raucous as the Blues she sang .Also the connection with the poet Jackie Kay is v moving .♥️

  19. 5 out of 5

    Angela

    I usually love everything that Kay writes, so snapped this up eagerly. Sad to say that it fell a bit flat for me. There’s no denying the author’s love for her subject but there was nothing to hook me in or grab my attention. Despite Smith’s colourful short life, this reads too dry. Disappointing.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Erica G

    A fantastic introduction and education of the life of Bessie Smith.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lynda

    A black poet’s look at one of the greatest blues singers of all time. Vividly brought to life, challenging the stereotypes of colour, gender, sexuality and class

  22. 4 out of 5

    Miss Hanna Loves Grammar

    Informative and a great education on Blues and Racism...and how this artist acted as a muse for our writer!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Olivia

    I really enjoyed this audio book. The story was very harrowing in parts but it will definitely give her Blues more depth next time I listen.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Angie Leonie

    A short synopsis of the empress of blues, but filled with too many fictional facts for me to take seriously.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mo

    Read paper back edition not kindle but option not available here. Interesting insight into one of the Blues greats

  26. 5 out of 5

    chris tervit

    I love Jackie- she cannae do wrong. She was a brilliant Makar for Scotland. She wrote this years ago but made some changes & re-released now- glad she did. I enjoyed her narrating it herself. She managed to get me really sucked into a biography I’d otherwise not have been fussed about- clever ‘inventive extrapolations’ to Bessie’s story. I enjoyed her talking about this book at the online Edin book festival interview this August. More please Jackie 😍

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dorothea

    For a long time I learned about music from other people in my life -- my parents and boyfriends. Then I decided to figure out what music I, myself, love, without anyone telling me to try it. That's how I found the blues. It does help to have someone nearby to show you how to listen to music, though. So I was lucky to find Jackie Kay's book. This is not a straightforward biography of Bessie Smith. Mostly, I like biographies that are scholarly: lots of citations, and analysis with the seams showing For a long time I learned about music from other people in my life -- my parents and boyfriends. Then I decided to figure out what music I, myself, love, without anyone telling me to try it. That's how I found the blues. It does help to have someone nearby to show you how to listen to music, though. So I was lucky to find Jackie Kay's book. This is not a straightforward biography of Bessie Smith. Mostly, I like biographies that are scholarly: lots of citations, and analysis with the seams showing so I can see how it's put together. This biography isn't that, but it's just what I wanted, because it taught me about the early blues scene without ever letting me forget that the person telling me about it is another woman who needs those blues. Jackie Kay says that when she was growing up in Glasgow, a black child with white adoptive parents, it was Bessie Smith who gave her race meaning. Like any child with a grown-up hero, Jackie imagined Bessie for herself: traveling across the wilds of America (like the set in a Western movie) in her private Pullman car (which she first imagined to be a sort of fancy covered wagon). Before she understood the meanings of the more ribald songs, she made up her own (the bit about Kitchen Man is charming). The real Bessie Smith was fantastic in different ways. She was an extreme woman: cruel and generous, profligate and jealous, poor and rich. She was fascinating. I love how Jackie Kay relishes the legends around Bessie Smith. She gives us the tallest stories and then, instead of toppling them, says, "Here's what the people who hear these stories need to get from them." This book is part of the Outlines series, which is "an unofficial, candid and entertaining short history of lesbian and gay art, life and sex." It seems that the editors of the Outline series really do just mean lesbian and gay. This was the one thing that annoyed me about this book. It quickly becomes clear that Bessie Smith had sexual relationships with both men and women. But Kay constantly refers to her life as a lesbian one. Kay speculates that her marriage to her abusive husband Jack Gee was sexless. Maybe true, but she cheated on him with men as well as women, and at the time of her death she'd been in an apparently happy relationship with another man, Richard Morgan, for years. Kay says very little about him. I think that Bessie Smith might not have identified her sexual orientation the way people do today, but if she had, it seems like she would have chosen bisexual to describe herself, not lesbian.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Martin Boyle

    I enjoyed reading about Bessie Smith (what a life!) and loved Kay's approach to writing the biography with a mix of fact, speculative ("what if?") interludes, and excellent writing. However, I did feel there was rather too much repetition in the text, especially in such a short - fewer than 200 pages - book. While it wasn't enough to spoil the read, it did make me wonder about how much Kay really knew about Smith's life. It is obvious that Kay adores Smith - both her work and her life - and I too I enjoyed reading about Bessie Smith (what a life!) and loved Kay's approach to writing the biography with a mix of fact, speculative ("what if?") interludes, and excellent writing. However, I did feel there was rather too much repetition in the text, especially in such a short - fewer than 200 pages - book. While it wasn't enough to spoil the read, it did make me wonder about how much Kay really knew about Smith's life. It is obvious that Kay adores Smith - both her work and her life - and I too finished in awe (and perhaps a little fear) of such an amazing woman: for this alone I am glad I read it.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jan

    Jackie Kay's highly personal and poetic biography of Bessie Smith tells you almost as much about Jackie as it does about Bessie. It gets an extra star for dealing head-on and joyously with Smith's bisexuality. Jackie Kay's highly personal and poetic biography of Bessie Smith tells you almost as much about Jackie as it does about Bessie. It gets an extra star for dealing head-on and joyously with Smith's bisexuality.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Maria Arcorace

    Bisexual blues singer from the 1930's, from HBO special coming up in May. Queen Latifah playing her. Bisexual blues singer from the 1930's, from HBO special coming up in May. Queen Latifah playing her.

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