Archives for : May2015

Diana Ross: Vintage Beauty!

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Bessie Smith: Black Bottom Beauty

 

 

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Born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, TN to Laura and William Smith, both of Bessie’s parents died while she was young and her older sister became responsible for raising Bessie and her other siblings.

Bessie and her brother Andrew became street performers in order to help bring money into the household. She sang and danced while he played the guitar.

In 1912, she was hired on as a dancer for the Stokes traveling troupe, where she met her future mentor, singer Ma Rainey. Smith eventually moved on to performing in various chorus lines, making the “81” Theater in Atlanta her home base. There were times when she worked in shows on the black-owned T.O.B.A (Theater Owners Booking Association) circuit.

She began perfecting her act in 1913 but did not secure a record deal until 1923 (with Columbia Records). She was living in Philadelphia at the time.

Bessie met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was released. During the marriage—a stormy one, with infidelity on both sides (including Bessie’s relationships with women)—Smith became the highest paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own railroad car. The couple eventually went their separate ways but did not obtain a divorce.

She made 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, most notably Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, and Charlie Green.

When the days of vaudeville shows were over in the late 1920s, Smith continued touring and occasionally singing in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called “Pansy,” a musical in which top critics said she was the only asset.

In 1929, Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler titled “St. Louis Blues,” based on W. C. Handy’s song of the same name.

In 1933, John Hammond, who also mentored Billie Holiday, asked Smith to record four sides for Okeh (which had been acquired by Columbia Records in 1925). Made on November 24, 1933, they serve as a hint of the transformation she made in her performances as she shifted her blues artistry into something that fit the “swing era.”

On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving and, probably mesmerized by the long stretch of straight road, misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Tire marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith’s old Packard. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.

Bessie Smith was taken to Clarksdale’s G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After Smith’s death, an often repeated but now discredited story emerged about the circumstances; namely, that she had died as a result of having been refused admission to a “whites only” hospital in Clarksdale. Jazz writer/producer John Hammond gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine. (“The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital, you can forget that,” said Dr. Hugh Smith, who was the first to arrive at the accident scene. “Down in the Deep South cotton country, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks.”)

Smith’s funeral was held in Philadelphia a little over a week later on October 4, 1937. Newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970 when a tombstone—paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith—was erected.

In 1980, Bessie was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. She also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.

In 1994, Bessie was honored with a U.S. postage stamp.

Three of Bessie’s recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame: “Downhearted Blues” (1923), “St. Louis Blues” (1925), and “Empty Bed Blues” (1928).

“Downhearted Blues” was included in the list of Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2001. It is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock ‘n’ roll. The song was also included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, in 2002.

Among numerous stories written about her life, she was included in Angela Davis’ book, “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday,” published in 1998.

Happy 85th Birthday Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930-January 12, 1965)

 

 

 

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Renowned playwright Lorraine Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930.

The youngest of four children, Lorraine was born in Chicago, IL, to Carl Augustus Hansberry, a successful real-estate broker, and Nannie Louise (born Perry) a school teacher. In 1938, Hansberry’s family moved to a white neighborhood and was violently attacked by neighbors. They refused to move until a court ordered them to do so, and the case made it to the Supreme Court as Hansberry v. Lee, ruling restrictive covenants illegal.

After graduating from Englewood High School in 1948, Hansberry broke her family’s tradition of enrolling in Southern black colleges and instead attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While enrolled at the university, she changed her major from painting to writing, and after two years decided to drop out and move to New York City.

In New York, Hansberry attended the New School for Social Research and then worked for Paul Robeson’s progressive black newspaper, “Freedom,” as a writer and associate editor from 1950 to 1953. She attended the Intercontinental Peace Congress in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1952 when Paul Robeson was denied a passport to attend.

Hansberry met Robert Nemiroff, a Jewish songwriter, on a picket line, and the two were married in 1953. She continued to work part-time as a waitress and cashier and wrote in her spare time. By 1956, Hansberry quit her jobs and committed her time to writing.

Hansberry completed her first play in 1957, taking her title from Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem.”

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore — and then run?”

She began to circulate the play, “Raisin in the Sun,” trying to interest producers, investors, and actors. Sidney Poitier expressed interest in taking the part of the son, and soon a director and other actors (including Louis Gossett, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis) were committed to the performance. “Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959, making Hansberry the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway.

The play, with themes both universally human and specifically about racial discrimination and sexist attitudes, was successful, and a screenplay soon followed in which Lorraine Hansberry added more scenes to the story — none of which Columbia Pictures allowed into the film.

Lorraine Hansberry was commissioned to write a television drama on slavery, which she completed as “The Drinking Gourd,” but it was not produced — NBC executives apparently didn’t support the idea of a black screenwriter writing about slavery.

Moving with her husband to Croton-on-Hudson, Lorraine Hansberry continued not only her writing but also her involvement with civil rights and other political protest, even after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In 1964, “The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality” was published for SNCC (Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) with text by Hansberry. She divorced Nemiroff in 1964, though they continued to work together.

In October 1964, Lorraine Hansberry moved back into New York City as her new play, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” began rehearsals. Although critical reception was cool, supporters kept it running until Lorraine Hansberry’s death in January 1965.

After her death, her ex-husband finished her work on a play centered on Africa, “Les Blancs.” This play opened in 1970 and ran for only 47 performances. He also adapted many of her writings into the play “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which was the longest-running Off-Broadway play of the 1968–69 season. It appeared in book form the following year under the title “To Be Young, Gifted and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words.” ( Singer and pianist Nina Simone, who was a close friend of Hansberry, used the title of her unfinished play to write a civil rights-themed song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” together with Weldon Irvine. The single reached the top 10 of the R&B charts.)

“Raisin,” a musical based on “A Raisin in the Sun,” opened in New York in 1973, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical, with the book by Nemiroff, music by Judd Woldin, and lyrics by Robert Britten.

“A Raisin in the Sun” was revived on Broadway in 2004 and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Revival of a Play. The cast included Sean Combs (“P Diddy”) as Walter Lee Younger Jr., Phylicia Rashad (Tony Award-winner for Best Actress), Sanaa Lathan and Audra McDonald (Tony Award-winner for Best Featured Actress). It was produced for television in 2008 with the same cast, garnering two NAACP Image Awards.

A second revival of the play occurred in 2014, starring Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose and Sophie Okonedo. Receiving 5 Tony nominations (one for the play, one for the director and one for each of the female leads), it garnered 3 awards: Best Revival of a Play, Best Direction of a Play – Kenny Leon, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play – Sophie Okonedo.

 

Gilda Radner: Born June 28, 1946-May 20, 1989

 

 

 

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Died on this date: Comedian Gilda Radner made millions of people laugh with the zany characters she created as a member of the original cast of television’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Comedian Gilda Radner made millions of people laugh with the zany characters she created as a member of the original cast of television’s “Saturday Night Live.”

As a gawky, squawky-voiced satirist with a frizzy tangle of hair, Radner created such characters as Roseanne Roseannadana, a gross, lisping newscaster; Emily Litella, a dithery, confused editorialist; Candy Slice, a masochistic punk rock star, and coed Rhonda Weiss, a gum-chewing Jewish “princess” from Long Island.

Her characterizations brought her an Emmy in 1978 for outstanding performance as an actress on “Saturday Night Live,” where she was a member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players with Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, who all went on to stardom.

She became a member of Toronto’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe, an offshoot of the famed Chicago company. Her fellow performers included Aykroyd and Murray, who would be with Radner again when “Saturday Night Live” premiered on NBC in October 1975.

While still on the show, Radner appeared in 1979 in a short-lived, one-woman Broadway show called “Gilda Live,” which was produced as a movie a year later and as an album, “Live From New York Gilda Radner.”

She left “Saturday Night Live” in 1980, making five films and appearing in a Broadway play in the next six years. The movies included “The Woman in Red” and “Haunted Honeymoon,” both written and directed by Gene Wilder, whom she met on the set of the film “Hanky Panky” in 1981 and married three years later in southern France.

Happy 69th Birthday Cher!

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Happy Birthday: Grace Jones

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Happy 90th Birthday Malcolm X (May 19, 1925 – February 21, 1965)

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