26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 53

Empress of the Blues

George Melly visits the former hospital where Bessie Smith died

ould you like to see where Bessie die?' asked Frank `Rat' Ratcliffe, propri- etor of an African-American hotel in Clarksdale Mississippi as we were about to leave his cosy parlour with its huge televi- sion set and view of the lobby where his lodgers came and went.

Rat (`Everybody know me in this town, black or white don't make no difference, and everybody call me Rat') had inherited the business from his mother who had run it for over 30 years, but at one time it had been Clarksdale's 'coloured hospital' and there, at 11.30 on 26 September, 1937, the morning after that terrible car accident on a dark road a few miles outside the city boundaries, Bessie Smith, 'The Empress of the Blues', had 'passed'.

And what of the shocking story of how racial prejudice killed Bessie Smith? Of how she might have survived if the ambu- lance hadn't first driven her to the white hospital who had refused to treat her and how she'd died from loss of blood on the


way to the building in which we sat. For a long time we all believed this tale and yet gradually it was proved to be entirely unfounded. Witness after witness — and especially the black ambulance driver who affirmed that there was no way, at that time in that place, would he have delivered Bessie to a white hospital — has discredit- ed it and yet it still persists. It is what Nor- man Mailer has called a lactoid', a myth powerful enough to defy facts. As Chris Albertson, the singer's biographer, wrote in some frustration 'Bessie Smith became bet- ter known for the way in which she alleged- ly died, than for what she did in life.'

But how was I on hand in the first place? Well, I was in the States to record eight one-hour radio programmes for the BBC and, to this end, visiting those cities where jazz and blues had landed and developed over the years from New Orleans to Mem- phis, from St Louis to Kansas City, a hectic but dream-like ten days. What was the creepiest moment?

In Chicago we were standing on some grass looking across the road at a former hotel, the Webster, now an apartment block which had denied us entrance. This very tall building, most of it brick, but topped and tailed by ornate stone facing in the Byzantine manner is revered by jazz- lovers because, in what was then the ball- room, on the top floor, the Great Jelly-Roll Morton recorded those historical Red Hot Pepper sides, every one a masterpiece. But what we didn't learn until later is that we were standing on the original site of the garage where the St Valentine's Day Mas- sacre took place. The ghosts of gangsters haunted the jazz towns they once con- trolled. All the old jazz musicians had worked for the mob. Clarksdale itself was not on our itinerary but we'd heard there was a blues archive there and, being in the neighbourhood, made a short detour. All the time the name kept nagging at me, and then I remembered it was where Bessie died and, after many enquiries and gather- ing that it was now a hotel, we found it, only initially I could hardly believe we were in the right place.

The former hospital was one of a long row of rather dilapidated single-storey wooden buildings with some gingerbread carving edging the roof. We'd visited many such places to interview old blues men, but a hospital! Then, as I was recording my rather confused impressions from across the road, I saw a man peeking out at us and felt we should explain what we were up .to, so crossed over and rang the bell.

Rat came to the door and I asked him if it was here Bessie died. 'Yes,' he said but added, rather dismissively, 'but that was long ago.' Rather to our surprise, however, he asked us in and had no objection to us recording the conversation. What he espe- cially wanted to tell us was how in his mother's time all the great blues men had stayed there. 'Muddy Waters, he roomed here. Ike Turner, he roomed here. Of course in those days they had to stay in a coloured hotel. Couldn't stay in no white one.' He told us that many demo tapes had been recorded there. 'Some became big hits, too!' He seemed very pleased although of course he was far too cool to show it — to have acquired a captive audi- ence. And loath to lose it, it was not until we were on our feet, that he made his rivet- ing offer and went to get the keys.

Once in the lobby we understood how it could have been a hospital after all. A cor- ridor stretched ahead, almost to vanishing point. 'The theatre was way down there,' said Rat returning with the keys. 'Now this,' he said, indicating a door quite near to hand, 'was the emergency room. And this was the recovery room. And this,' he said, taking some time to find the key, 'is the room where Bessie die.' Rat was not lacking in a sense of drama. 'I don't let out this room too much, only if we're real full, but if I do I warn 'em, "You take care ol' Bessie don't shake that bed around".'

Rat was something of a hard-nosed comic, but then so was Bessie.

I'm gonna meet a ghost by the name of Jones I'm gonna meet a ghost by the name of Jones It makes me happy to hear him rattle his bones

she once sang. And so Rat opened the door. It wasn't a very big room, although the bed was quite substantial with carved wooden ends and a silky cover in dark shiny colours, but it was what lay on top of it that brought my heart up into my mouth. It was a life-size poster of the Empress her- self, beaming in all her stage finery. Her head had been bent slightly forward so that it seemed to rest on the pillow. A shrine!

Up The Lazy River will be broadcast on BBC Radio Two on Monday, 28 September at 8.30 p.m.