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1/25/12

Ruby Smith: A cab ride to Columbus


Tired of their cat and mouse game, Bessie decided to appease her husband, Jack Gee, by making him the producer of her touring show. She knew that Jack wasn't fit for the job, but felt that her brother, Clarence, would guide him. Impressed by her box office success, T.O.B.A bigwig Sam Reevin gave Jack a $3,000 budget for Bessie's next show. Getting Jack involved in her business was supposed to cement the ever-widening cracks in their relationship, but it did just the opposite.

Jack threw together as cheap a production as possible for Bessie and decided to use the remainder of the money for personal gain—not to enrich himself financially, but to win the heart of Gertrude Saunders, a singer of striking looks and impressive past accomplishments. Ms. Saunders had starred successfully in the title role of Irvin C. Miller’s Red Hot Mama show during the 1926 season, and headed the cast of various subsequent editions, but her most successful shows had been Liza and the 1921 Sissle and Blake hit, Shuffle Along (which included Josephine Baker in the chorus line). The latter production would probably have secured Ms. Saunders’ stage future, but she made a fateful decision and allowed herself to be lured away from the original cast by an offer that never materialized. Gertrude Saunders’ bad move opened the door for the ultimate black beauty of the day, Florence Mills, who took over the role and was such a hit that she became the toast of Broadway. Ms. Mills career was cut short in November,1927, when she died at the age of 35, but the bright spotlight Gertrude Saunders so foolishly relinquished was never restored to her.

It is not known when Jack’s relationship with Ms. Saunders began, but Ruby thought it had gone on for some time before Jack produced her show, and that it accounted for some of his “hunting” trips. Gertrude Saunders was the antithesis of Bessie Smith, their personalities and looks contrasted sharply: Gertrude’s complexion was light, her hair long and soft, her disposition gentle. She was also slim and quite a bit younger than Bessie—a typical “Miller beauty.” The artistic gap that separated the two was equally wide: Gertrude Saunders relied more on her looks than on her voice, which had about it an unfortunate Florence Foster Jenkins quality and a range that could have made her the Yma Sumac of her day. 

“She was the opposite of Bessie,” said Ruby, making no secret of her disdain. “She had light skin and long curly hair and a gorgeous figure, and she knew it. In fact, she thought her shit didn’t stink." 
Jack strikes a Benny pose, Gertie mesmerizes.

In a 1971 interview, I asked Ms. Saunders if she had known that Bessie’s money went to back her show. “No,” she replied, emphatically, “but Jack could very well have put the money in my show without telling Bessie. Naturally he wouldn’t tell me if it was her money, he’d want to act like a big shot.” Which, of course, was exactly what he was doing. 

“I don’t know how he thought he could get away with it,” said Ruby, “but he wasn’t never too bright and he didn’t know anything about show business. He should have known that you can’t keep something like that a secret, not with all them blabbermouths around. His show only lasted about five or six months, then it folded up. He couldn't get enough bookings. And,” she added acerbically, “his star wasn’t strong enough to hold it up.” After a short run in New York, Bessie’s own show, Steamboat Days, hit the road again—back to Detroit’s Koppin Theater, then on to the Globe in Cleveland, and, on March 11, a week at the Roosevelt in Cincinnati. That's where we pick up on Ruby's recollection.



And here is Ruby performing live over New York radio station WNYC, February 19, 1949. Her accompanists are trumpeter Gus Aiken, pianist Lannie Scott, Ellington veteran Wellman Braud on bass, and drummer Freddie Moore, who made his recording debut with King Oliver. Ruby complained to me that John Hammond insisted on her singing in Bessie's style, ignoring the fact that Bessie had moved herself into the Swing Era. Determined not to be regarded as a 1920s relic, she renders a couple of songs from Bessie's early repertoire and ends with a "modern" number—she had it all figured out. 

3 comments:

  1. Wonderful details to such a rich history of oft overlooked Jazz greats!!! I must admit, I love the sordid details!

    -Chuck

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  2. The theatre that Bessie appeared at in Columbus, Ohio still stands, I want to check it out someday. Chris, because of your book on Bessie, I was able to find this fact out! This being my hometown, it will be easy access for me, Thank You, Chris!

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    Replies
    1. Great! It's good to hear that my book contained useful information. I hope you find it and take a photo.

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