It’s the skill of Kay’s biography to capture that sense of initial charge and identification, that conspiratorial relationship between Smith’s blues and her listeners, who can never feel alone, so long as Smith is beside them. We feel Smith’s personality electrifying these pages: she is brought, uncannily, back to life. Kay manages to imbue this biography with the full force of personhood. It reads, in some places, like a novel, in that we feel intimately aware not only of the facts of Smith’s life, but of her motivations, her fears, her demons, and her magnetic, forceful individuality.
Originally published in 1997, Kay’s biography was a joyous and formally daring undertaking. Then, it formed part of a series called Outlines, which sought to document “an unofficial, candid and entertaining short history of lesbian and gay art, life and sex”. Now, a Spice Girls reference dates it only momentarily: Bessie Smith remains an act of intimate witnessing, a biography about a black, bisexual, working-class American artist by a celebrated Scottish poet who first recognised her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and “beautiful black face”... The lyricism makes a concertina of time and space, the swirl of artefacts – hard evidence, and monuments to feeling – mounting to a heady crescendo.
In surviving photographs Smith appears startlingly modern, so alive she might sweep out of the frame in a scatter of rhinestones and feathers. Kay replicates that closeness in her writing, contextualising Smith while honouring the physical realities of her life, the punches thrown and received, the bad liquor and worse men, the power of her song and the impotence of her end.
“The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing,” her belated headstone reads. Kay’s book is the amplifier that Smith’s voice deserves.