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My Bessie Book Tour - Part 1

A few days ago, I made one of my daily visits to the BBC World News site and saw there a video clip of Terry Teachout being interviewed about his fine book on Louis Armstrong. Because so much has been written about this remarkable man, it isn’t easy to come up with an original Armstrong biography at this point, but Terry met the challenge and is enjoying extraordinary results. There are probably enough dedicated books on Armstrong alone to rival a modest home library, and I highly recommend Terry’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, even if you have a dozen these books. That said, this is not intended to be a book review, but Terry's extended book tour and the reports he posts on his blog, About Last Night, brought me back to January of 1973, when my biography of Bessie Smith, Bessie, came off the presses and I was sent out on a hectic two-week coast-to-coast promotional tour. I don’t know what Terry’s recent experience was, but I imagine that the traveling alone must be a nightmare these days, what with constant orders to disrobe, pirouette for the scanner, and have stone-faced strangers examine one’s most personal belongings. While necessary in today's climate of real or imagined fear, such security measures are always intrusive—bearable on the occasional trip, but surely a bloody nuisance on nomadic hops, such as book tours are. Back in '73, people still dressed up for flights, food and drinks were givens, and the only issue one might have had with baggage was its weight. This is one area in which we have regressed far beyond expectations.

Before departing for my first stop, Highpoint, North Carolina, I was briefed by my publisher’s promotional people. They instructed me to be sure to mention the book’s title as often as possible and not to be afraid to cut in on other guests, to always carry the book with me and make sure that cameras catch it.

I was also told to autograph as many books as possible when making store appearances. Don't wait for a customer to buy it, offer to sign every copy. The store will appreciate that, they assured me, because an autographed book is easier to sell. That is probably true, but the main reason for robbing books of their virginity is that it renders them non-returnable. I was still a rather reserved guy, so most of these lessons in brashness were against my nature, but I promised to adhere to the manual.

Bessie's tent show traversed North Carolina regularly in the 1920s, always stopping in the High Point area. This  is also where John Coltrane attended high school, but neither of these facts matter much to a town that proudly proclaims itself to be "The Home Furnishings Capital of the World." I still don't know why High Point was on my itinerary, but it was a good stop, because the TV interviewer, Bill Boggs, was a thoroughly professional man whose career is still going strong. Unfortunately, he had received the book on that same day, so he apologized for only having skimmed its text and proceeded to ask intelligent questions. I would soon discover that most interviewers barely read past the dust cover blurb, even when they received the book well in advance.

Of the many myths that developed around Bessie Smith, the most prominent was that she bled to death after a 1937 automobile accident and died when a Southern white hospital refused her admittance. Such racism was real back then, but this was an apocryphal story. A simple phone call would have revealed that, but the "Empress of the Blues" dying at the hands of racism was too good a story for John Hammond to disprove, so—rather than pick up a phone and find the truth—he lent the rumor credence in a 1937 Down Beat article. John Lomax discovered the truth in the early Forties, but kept quiet about it, and nobody paid attention in 1957 when George Hoefer seriously questioned the myth and offered valuable evidence to the contrary in Down Beat. Three years later, when the myth that refused to die made its way to playwright Edward Albee’s typewriter, its eternal life was practically assured. I am pleased to say that it was finally quashed in 1972, in the closing pages of my biography.

Given all that, I was not surprised to find that throughout my book tour the question du jour was, “How did Bessie Smith die?” Being repeatedly asked the same question eventually triggers an automatic response and, like one of Pavlov's dogs, I was already programmed to give one by the time I reached New Orleans. At first, I fought it by injecting a slight variation here and there, but I eventually etched the story into a boring recitation. It was always a pleasant surprise when I encountered an interviewer who had not only had read the book, but also had the mental ability to formulate original questions. That sort of thing woke me up and resulted in a far better interview. On a New Orleans radio show, I was also given a reality jolt by a listener who called in to "remind" me of the debt all black blues singers owed to Sophie Tucker! My interviewer seemed somewhat ill at ease when I set the record straight.

One longs for original questions, but they can throw you a curve, as happened on a one-hour TV show in St. Louis, where I was the only guest. The host was a young black man who had read my book thoroughly and asked refreshingly intelligent questions, but he caught me off guard with this one.

“Why is it that white authors who write about black people are so preoccupied with sex?”

Huh? I wasn’t expecting that one, but neither was my host ready for the response.

“Do you think my book reflects a preoccupation with sex?,” I asked, as it occurred to me that this might actually sell a few extra copies.

“Well, you do seem to have a lot of it in there,” he said.

“Really?," I said, pretending to be more surprised than I actually was. I should point out that forty years ago one was hard put to find even a mild reference to sexual experience in biographical jazz literature, much less a mention of homosexuality. “The truth is that there was a great deal of sexual activity going on during those tours," I continued. "Many stories were told me and I am sure that many more were not.”

My host nodded and seemed ready with a follow-up, but I wasn't finished. “In fact,” I continued, “I deliberately left many stories of sexual activity out of the book. For example, nowhere do I mention the german shepherd.”

My interviewer had no comeback for that one. He took a deep breath and announced a commercial break.

As soon as the red camera lights went off, he asked, “German shepherd?”

I just nodded. This was not a story I was prepared to tell, not even off the air.

Like any work-generated tour, flying around to hawk a book leaves little or no time for relaxation or sightseeing. The itinerary looks like something one might look forward to good but one is basically moving through a series of near-identical environments to answer the same questions asked—or so it seems—by the same people. I was on my own for most of my tour, armed with a list of scheduled appearances, the necessary airline tickets, hotel reservations and local contacts, I had but to follow my publisher's well laid-out agenda. Because I was spending several days in San Francisco and Los Angeles to accommodate a heavier schedule, local PR firms had been engaged to pick me up at the airports and see me through the visit.

I was met at San Francisco airport by a man in black with a matching sedan and a business-like demeanor. He represented my publisher's advertising agency and was assigned to take me around for the next three days. He handed me a revised itinerary as we headed for the St. Francis hotel, where my sizable room was already occupied by an entertainment reporter and his camera man. It was 3 PM and my PR escort told me that we would be leaving in an hour for an  "underground" rock station, KSAN. I barely had time to comb my hair before the room interview began and I was asked to talk about Bessie's death. It was brief and I wanted nothing more than to take a shower and lie down on that great big bed. Could I at least take a leak? Well, yes, but Mr. PR man was getting fidgety.

I soon discovered that the PR people had the media split into two groups: the conservatively-dressed, middle-aged, overwhelmingly white press that politely asked standard questions, and the more perceptive, ethnically mixed rag tag underground press that seemed mostly to be interested in the wilder side of Bessie's lifestyle. They were, however, well acquainted with her music.  

My first full day in San Francisco started with seven radio and TV appearances before noon, lunch at Orsi's Wine Cellar with the city's most respected entertainment journalists, and follow-up interviews. After a KQED-TV session with Phil Elwood, I returned to the St. Francis to find my room filled with a group that might well have answered a Fellini casting call—this was the "underground" press and much of it was on my bed. Apropos that bed, I had to do a 3:30 AM call-in show on KSFX before I finally was allowed three hours of sleep.

Here is a link to Part II of this post, wherein I write about the characters on my bed, the unforgettable transformation of a valley girl, and how Sally Rand, the legendary fan/bubble dancer, helped me out in Chicago. Note: Clicking on images enlarges them.


  1. This was my worst day--or, rather, two days--on the road for "Pops":

    (1) Flew from New York to Los Angeles in the morning of Day 1
    (2) Did radio and bookstore visits all afternoon
    (3) Spoke at the Los Angeles Public Library in the evening of Day 1
    (4) Took a red-eye flight to Washington, D.C.
    (5) Drove from Washington to Baltimore on the morning of Day 2, hitting bookstores all along the way
    (6) Did a half-dozen radio interviews in Baltimore
    (7) Spoke at the Baltimore library on the evening of Day 2
    (8) Took a train to Philadelphia
    (9) Checked into a hotel there, where I slept in a bed for the first time since I awoke on the morning of Day 1

    Not an experience I'd care to repeat, although everything I did along the way was gratifying. And thanks for the kind words about "Pops," Chris--your good opinion matters greatly to me.

  2. Thank you for your encouraging comment, Chris.

    You, too, Terry. Obviously, the grind is still grueling—in a weirdly gratifying sort of way!