It was a timely call I received from Sol Stein one morning in 1970. He had noticed a lot publicity in connection with Columbia Records' plan to issue the complete recorded output of Bessie Smith—160 performances on ten LPs. It was not something one expected a major label to do, especially when the material was almost 40 years old. If Columbia saw a market for this, Sol reckoned, surely there it was time for a book on Bessie Smith.
Someone had recommended that he contact me for the job, and when I label it as a timely call, it is not just because a Bessie Smith biography was overdue, but because Ruby Walker had just resurfaced. Of course, Sol did not know that, but I told him that my accepting his request was contingent on Ruby's willingness to cooperate. They were having an editorial meeting the following morning and he would get back to me.
Ruby, then close to seventy, neither looked nor acted her age, but she knew it would eventually catch up with her. "You know," she said to me, "one day you wake up and look in the mirror, and your face has dropped."
I feigned surprise. "Really?"
"Of course!", she said, "and my dream is to get to California before it drops."
When Sol Stein called back to report the nod from his editorial board, I called Ruby and asked the obvious question: "Has it dropped yet?"
"Has what dropped?", she said.
She let out a shriek followed by an emphatic "NO!"
"That's good," I said, adding that she might just make it to California with her face in place. She liked that.
I gave her the choice of taking a percentage of the book or $3000 in cash, which was the amount of my advance. She opted for the latter, life having taught her that "a bird in hand" was no mere adage.
|On the road: Bessie and Ruby with The Dancing Sheiks.|
The man in the middle is Arthur "Eggie" Pitts.
Shortly thereafter, she came to my apartment for the first in a series of interviews, parts of which I will share with you here. We sat at a small table in the very spot from which I now write my blog posts, and I used a cheap cassette recorder, because our conversations were never meant to be listened to except by me as I worked on the book. I must say that, although I had known Ruby for a couple of months, she totally surprised me with her candor and delighted me with her concern for remembering things correctly. After each session, she would call me upon her return home to her somewhat converted garage in Jersey City and let me know that she had arrived safely. She also always corrected any slip of memory that might have crept into the interview. The name of a town or person, a detail from an incident. It was very important to her to get it right. After the publication of the book, I was sometimes asked if I didn't think Ruby had made up some of her stories. The answer is that I don't think so. There were numerous times when I brought up something that would have provided a teller of fanciful tales with the perfect opportunity to be creative, but Ruby just said, "I guess I wasn't there."
When you think about it, life on the road with Bessie Smith was simply too eventful for Ruby to have seen a need for fabrication. I think you will agree when you hear the tapes.
In 1996, when my old friend, Larry Cohn, called and asked if I would write the notes for a new 10-CD Columbia release of Bessie's entire output, he mentioned that the set would include the soundtrack of "St. Louis Blues," the two-reeler Bessie filmed in 1929. When he told me that they might fill up some space with Bessie's alternate takes, I explained that I had decided against that when I produced the LPs, because they were too similar to the issued takes, but it occurred to me that he might want to add a snippet of Ruby talking about Bessie. Larry liked that idea and asked me to send him a tape. I had put together about seventy minutes where I removed most of my own comments and questions, so I thought he might find about five minutes that he could use.
Larry was floored by Ruby, so he decided to use it all and fill the 10th CD with it, even if he had to put one of Madame Gore's parental advisory stickers on the box. So be advised, Ruby did not mince her words.
So there it is, you may have heard these Ruby tapes before, but I am putting them here because I think most people will not have heard them. Besides, my friend Ruby was anything but dull, so her stories bear repeating. There is also more material from these sessions, so I will probably post some of that, later.
The first story is almost clean enough for prime time. It has Bessie finding herself in a precarious situation after having spent a week in a small Harlem hotel with one of Fletcher Henderson's musicians. She called Ruby for help. Since most people are unfamiliar with Bessie Smith's family situation, let me explain that she married a security guard named Jack Gee in 1923, the year in which she made her first recordings, and that Ruby Walker was Jack's niece. Ruby, however, was not very fond of Uncle Jack, but she loved Bessie and became her confidante, as well as a chorine. Ruby's recollections give us an insight to Bessie that we otherwise would not have—she had many extraordinary stories to tell and she told them with a cadence that in and of itself commanded one's attention. In the course of the many interviews we did over a brief period of time, Ruby's mood often changed. She became downcast at times only to snap out of it when remembering a good time. Well, click here and you'll hear what I mean.
I am not doing this to plug my book, but neither would I complain if you decided to give it a look. Just be sure that it is the extended 2003 edition (Yale University Press) and not my original 1972 attempt (Stein & Day). There is an Amazon link if you scroll down and used paperbacks are as low as five dollars.
As usual, I welcome any comments.