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Ruby Reminisces about Bessie Smith

As you may have noticed, I have over the years posted excerpts from the amazing series of interviews Ruby Walker contributed to my Bessie Smith biography, "Bessie," which was first published in 1972.

Unfortunately, DivShare, the service I subscribed to in order to post audio and video clips, seems to have gone out of business. There was no warning, no apology, no explanation. Worse still, the company left no path for its thousands of subscribers to retrieve uploaded files. I have begun replacing my posted clips wherever possible, but it is a slow, laborious process. If you attempt in vain to use a link on this blog, please leave a comment. I will then give that link priority and try to reinstate it.

This morning, while replacing a couple of the Ruby Walker links, I decided to post longer, unedited segments that include previously unpublished material. I edited out a few long pauses, a couple of phone rings, and a brief garbled tape glitch, but these are essentially the raw tapes. 
Bessie, Ruby and The Dancing Sheiks.
"Eggie" Pitts seated in the middle.

The interviews took place in my N.Y. apartment over forty years ago, with Ruby seated exactly where I now enter this into my computer. At one point, you may hear her give advice to her "black brother"—that being my doberman, Mingus. When I paid Ruby for her invaluable help, she used the money to fulfill a dream and move to California. Here are the first two parts of our interview. Please bear in mind that this is not the customary Q and A exchange, for the sole purpose was to gather information regarding Bessie Smith and her life.

If only Home Box Office had shared that goal, they would not have hired a clueless amateur writer/director [Dee Rees] to turn the extraordinary Ms. Smith into the centerpiece of a ludicrous lesbian-focused scenario in which actors [some of them accomplished] portray embarrassing stereotypes. Here is the unvarnished truth, a glimpse of the real Bessie Smith, told by someone who spent 14 years on the road with her. 

The Ruby Walker tapes - Part 1
Ruby recalls meeting and hearing Bessie sing for the first time.

The Ruby Walker tapes - Part 2
Ruby describes a Buffet Flat experience in great detail.


  1. So it's safe to say u disapprove of the biopic? I've been trying to find if you had done a review on it but to no avail. Any extra comments on Bessie?

  2. I have not written a review, as such, but I have been quite outspoken about this travesty of a film. HBO hired me as consultant about a month before shooting began. They gave me the latest draft of a screenplay by Dee Reese and asked me to comment on it. They urged me to be frank.... I was. It was the ludicrous work of someone who hadn't a clue. When I met Reese, in an HBO conference room with people who ere involved in the production, she and the rest of them had my book on the table in front of them. I don't think they ever read it and Queen Latifah's claims of having done thorough research was obviously bull shit. Reese set out to do another lesbian movie (her only previous film was about a lesbian couple in Brooklyn) without any regard for the facts... she even failed to understand the period, The film is a disgrace, in my opinion, perhaps even worse than "Lady Sings the Blues," and it tells me that no lessons have been learned.

    1. If I can be frank I'm quite stunned you say that. It was the film that prompted me to read your book & there just seemed to be a lot of concictinces that were in your book. I not once felt it was a lesbian film nor did I find it exploitive. I mean of course it wasn't %100 factual but what biopic is? When I read you're book the similarities were startling I thought. From the relationship with Viola to the stabbing incident to her relationship with MA Rainey & Jack Gee. Now that being said Lady Sings is my all time favorite film but the romanticism and inconsistencies are enormous! I think Queen Latifah was astounding! If I could ask what scenes or was it the whole thing that disappointed you? & do u think you could be biased because of your love & adoration? My favorite artist is Miss Ross & I would certainly have issues with any film or actor who would dare to tackle her. With all that being said I so honored to have you respond to my post! I truly think of you as a fantastic author and person and I truly believe Bessie is smiling on you constantly for your exhaustive research! Your book is such a gift & I'm just so happy to have read it & appreciate the love you gave to your subject. I hate to refer to Bessie as such because she was so much more than a subject. So thank you thank you thank you for taking the time to respond! It really is an honor to speak with someone who knew so many fascinating human beings. I most definitely will be rereading Bessie soon. I hope to hear from you again. God bless

    2. Hi Lukas. First, let me thank you for reading my book and for the many kind words. Sales figures are still modest although the HBO film obviously gave them a bump, which is good for me, but does not in any way make up for the fact that this film now stands in the way of a worthy one being made any time soon. The similarities you mention are by no means coincidental—let me explain. The first screenplay was written by Melvin Van Peeples, but quickly rejected because it was a somewhat ludicrous fantasy. Then the option holders turned to Horton Foote, an extraordinary playwright and screenwriter (among his honors is an Oscar for "To Kill a Mockingbird"), who liked my book, loved Bessie Smith, and eagerly accepted the assignment. Horton and I got along famously, he had a wonderful; grasp of Bessie—not just her music but her persona—and he knew the South and the Twenties from rich firsthand experience. Equally important, he was a superb writer. If you read "Mockingbird" and saw the movie, you know that Horton captured the author's story and condensed it to film length without having to sacrifice content. Of course he had to skip segments, but he did so seamlessly. The same can not be said for Dee Reese and Susanne DePass. Many years ago, I received a call from Susanne, expressing her interest in basing a film on "Bessie." When I told her, unenthusiastically, that I had seen "Lady Sings the Blues", she became almost apologetic as she replied, "We don't do that anymore."

      The project fell through so Horton's script was never used. When he passed away, his daughter inherited the Bessie treatment and eventually made a deal with HBO. That script was totally and officially based upon my book, which is probably why HBO's press releases at first cited it as their source for the film. I happened to come across items in the trade papers, some of which even included an image of my book, so I called HBO to find out what was going on. All this to say that Horton had the facts straight and I presume that some of them were picked up by subsequent writers whom HBO let go. Dee is not pleased with my failure to praise her for the crap she wrote, so she now claims to have done her research by reading a chapter on Bessie in an Angela Davis book. Ironically, Angela's information came from my book (she purchased about 100 copies for her class at San Francisco State U.)!

      Confusing story, I know, but the main reason for my displeasure with HBO and Reese is, as I said, that it will be a long time if ever Bessie again becomes the subject of a filmed biography.

      BTW, I agree that Queen Latifah did an excellent job with the vocals and I should point out that I originally recommended her for the part when Horton's script was in pre-production at Columbia Pictures—several decades ago. Take care, Lukas. —Chris

  3. Chris, I have your 2003 hardback edition of Bessie in my collection. I really liked the HBO movie, but with my knowing of the contents of your book, I knew the movie wasn't 100% factual. I feel they also should have shown the facts of Bessie's car accident, because so many people still think she died because of prejudice! It's because of your book that I became a fan of Bessie. Thank You for your dedication to Bessie & the truth. God Bless!

    1. I am glad to hear that you like the book, but I must confess that your embrace of the HBO movie, although not a really tight squeeze, is worrying. This was a hack job by a "writer" who obviously hasn't a clue when it comes to Bessie's amazing persona and what she had to overcome in Southern U.S. during the 20s and 30s.

      What really bothers me about such flagrant disregard for the facts and the failure to see much beyond occasional bisexual encounters is the reality even a third-rate film effort discouraging real film makers from making biographical movie of Bessie's life. It will be many years, if ever another is made. Bessie was a great artist and a fascinating, liberated woman who continues to inspire. She did not deserve the shoddy treatment given her by Dee Reese and HBO.

    2. Hello Chris,
      It is an honor and privilege to be able to write to the man who's singular effort to bring Bessie Smith's tremendous life and legacy into the minds of all in this day and age and beyond via your terrific biography about her. For me it started from reading excerpts in the liner notes of the albums of the first reissues by Columbia. I was entranced by her voice and artistry. I have read the book in 1972 and the reissue more recently. I wish there were more to read. One can feel the reverence and respect in your painstaking efforts to retrieve documents and the like concerning Bessie. I could go on but I am sure you get that I and countless others appreciate your work.
      This leads me to the HBO movie. Your words about it are right out of my mind. Not only was I disappointed but rather angry over the disregard for Bessie's larger than life talent and persona to focus more on a lesbian narrative. I suspect that the population of those who rather enjoyed the movie are probably a bit younger and more taken with the stars in the movie than with the subject. Queen Latifah is a force of nature talent and I knew she would shine singing "Gimmie A Pig Foot" number.But to me her persona was too "butch" to play Bessie. I have read the same book as everyone else and I find that although Bessie was very tough, she was also a woman who liked being a lady. She simply lived her life.I doubt that "causes" were in the forefront of her actions.It is people today who wish to assign her to femminision and the like.
      Lastly this HBO movie I sense is looked at by many as entertaining ( for the stars in it) if not also as definitive and as such I think you are right in that it is unlikely that the subject of Bessie Smith and her legacy will be approached any time soon because of this HBO movie. A tragic waste.
      Who knows? With proper input to the writing, the casting of a new unknown talent that maybe resembles Bessie a little and the production values used as those for "Board Walk Empire" (remember that club scene with that large voiced black woman singing? You felt like you were there)..the result would knock it out the park. Surely a miniseries would be the way to go with so much material. Let us ask somebody!


    3. Thank you, Francisco—your words are the kind of encouragement that fuels my need to separate reality from the veiled fiction exemplified by the HBO film.

      I'm afraid I will not live to see a serious film devoted to Bessie's life, but I will die hoping that someone takes on such a project.


  4. Chris,
    I have read your biography, Davis' book on Blues Legacies and Black Femininsm, Feinstein's biography (if you can call it that), and several articles on Bessie. I have enjoyed her music for years, and am currently working on a project for a PhD course. I was curious if you could give some insight into the picture you have on this post of her and Ruby, with Bessie in "mammie" attire. I had come to understand that at some point in her career she refused to dress in that attire, and also that she did not do so for white audiences. I would appreciate any information you can give. Thank you.

  5. I love your book I agree with you the movie doesn't do the book justice but it gave me the interest to find out more about this strong defiant woman excellent book

    1. Thank you Vincent, your comment is greatly appreciated.