By Rebecca Docter
In recent years, the state of Louisiana has become no stranger to the film industry. Along with the number of extras and scenery available in the state, Louisiana has something else to offer: music.
Earlier this year, the HBO biopic “Bessie,” starring Queen Latifah, hit the silver screen, but some of its earliest roots stem from Baton Rouge. Noted blues artist Bessie Smith, who was active in the early 1900’s, was known for her strong voice and soul, and one LSU professor was given the opportunity to transform her music for the film.
Musician and professor of music William Grimes wrote a prerecord—an arrangement prepared in advance—for the film. He took Smith’s “Long Old Road” and converted it from an early version to a later one.
“Basically they said, we want to use a tune, ‘Long Old Road’ that she had recorded in 1927, but they wanted me to orchestrate it as if she recorded it in 1934, toward the end of her career,” Grimes said via email. “It called for a different instrumentation to fit the 1934 sessions.”
When the film was in its early stages, a music consultant for a company who works closely with HBO contacted Grimes through Larry Seiberth, a New Orleans Jazz artist who was already working on the film. Baton Rouge jazz musician Mike Esneault also wrote some of the film’s prerecord tracks. The movie released in May.
Directed by Dee Rees, the film focuses on Smith’s rise to fame. The story follows Smith from her childhood through her early career, and it doesn’t skip over the trials and tribulations she dealt with as an artist. The film also chronicles Smith’s relationship with her husband and family, but her music takes center stage.
According to Grimes, another Louisiana studio writer also wrote a version of the prerecord, but the film’s director chose to use Grimes’ version. He said it took him about eight hours to write.
Since 1984, Grimes has taught LSU’s “History of Jazz” (MUS 2000) course to students, so he didn’t have to hit the books much to prepare for working with Smith’s tunes, which in their day topped the charts.
“Bessie Smith and her music [are] an important part of that history, so I had lots of prior knowledge about her style, the musical period, and the instrumental textures that were used,” Grimes said.
Grimes is also a fan of Smith outside of the classroom.
“She’s known as the ‘Empress of the Blues,’ an apt title,” Grimes said.
This wasn’t the first time Grimes was contacted for larger projects—he’s also done work for big name artists.
“Most of the composing/arranging I do is for jazz/pop artists who need arrangements for symphony orchestra, groups like the Beach Boys. I wrote their orchestra book in 2001,” Grimes said.
Grimes is an LSU E.D. White Professor of Music. He, along with other musicians, played in the “Hot Summer Nights and Cool Jazz” concert series at the Claude L. Shaver Theatre in LSU’s Music & Dramatic Arts Building in June. He has also led the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and Baton Rouge Symphony in addition to other endeavors and has also worked with multiple jazz legends.