Bessie Smith (July, 1892 – September 21, 1937) was the most popular and successful female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, and a strong influence on subsequent generations, including Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Janis Joplin.
She is often referred to as the "Empress of the Blues."
According to 1900 census, Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States in July, 1892. That date stands in contrast to April 15, 1894, which is the date indicated on her wedding certificate and confirmed by family members. The census also gives information regarding the size of Smith's family that conflicts with many biographies.
According to the 1870, 1880 and 1900 censuses, Bessie Smith was the thirteenth child of William Smith and the tenth (seventh or eighth to survive childhood) of Laura (Owens) Smith. These figures contradict recollections by family and school mates interviewed by Smith's biographer, Chris Albertson. In his book, Bessie, William Smith was a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a minister of the gospel, in Moulton, Lawrence, Alabama) who died before Bessie could remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, she had lost her mother as well, and her older sister Viola was left in charge of caring for her sisters and brothers.
As a way of earning money for her impoverished household, Bessie and her brother Andrew began performing on the streets of Chattanooga as a singer/guitarist duo; their preferred location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of the city's African-American community.
In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, covertly left home by joining a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud, "that's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child."
Bessie's turn came in 1912, when Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe and arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give her an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than singer, because the company also included Ma Rainey.
All contemporary accounts indicate that Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, but she probably helped her develop a stage presence. Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theatre. By 1920 she had gained a good reputation in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.
In 1923, when sales figures for an Okeh recording by singer Mamie Smith (no relation) opened up a new market and had talent scouts looking for blues artists, Bessie Smith was signed by Columbia Records to initiate the company's new "race records" series.
Scoring a big hit with her first release, a coupling of "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Down Hearted Blues," which its composer, Alberta Hunter already had turned into a hit on the Paramount label, Bessie's career blossomed. She became a headliner on the black Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) theater circuit and was its top entertainer in the 1920s. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter months and doing tent tours the rest of the year (eventually traveling in her own railroad car), Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Columbia nicknamed her "Queen of the Blues", but a PR-minded press soon elevated to "Empress".
She would make some 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, most notably Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, and Fletcher Henderson.
Smith's career was cut short by a combination of the Great Depression (which all but put the recording industry out of business) and the advent of "talkies", which spelled the end for vaudeville. She, however, never stopped performing. While the days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, Bessie continued touring and occasionally singing in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called Pansy, a musical in which, the top white critics agreed, she was the only asset.
In 1929, Bessie Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a one-reeler based on W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues". In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, NY, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, pianist James P. Johnson, and a string section  — a musical environment radically different from any found on her recordings.
These performances, for which Hammond paid her a non-royalty fee of $37.50 each, were recorded on 24 November 1933. They constitute Smith's final recordings. They are of particular interest because Smith was in the process of translating her blues artistry into something more apropos to the Swing Era, and this session gives us a hint of what was to come.
The accompanying band included such Swing Era musicians as trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, pianist Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, and bassist Billy Taylor.
Even Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in the adjoining studio, dropped by for an almost inaudible guest visit. Hammond was not pleased with the result, preferring to have Smith back in her old blues groove, but "Take Me For A Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot" (in which Goodman is part of the ensemble) remain among her most popular recordings.
On September 26, 1937, Smith was severely injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale, Mississippi with her lover (and Lionel Hampton's uncle), Richard Morgan, at the wheel. She was taken to Clarksdale's black Afro-American Hospital where her right arm was amputated. She did not regain consciousness, dying that morning.
Given the technical faults in the majority of her original gramophone recordings—especially variations in recording speed, which raised or lowered the apparent pitch of her voice, misrepresented the "light and shade" of her superb phrasing, interpretation and delivery, and altered the apparent key of her performances (sometimes raised or lowered by as much as a semitone) and, also, the fact that the "centre hole" in some of the master recordings had not been in the true middle of the master disc, meaning that there were wide variations in tone, pitch, key and phrasing as the commercially released record revolved around its spindle—there is a very significant and very positive difference in the performance that Smith delivers in the current digitally remastered versions of her work.
References in Other Works
- The rock and roll group The Band, popular during the 1960s and the 1970s, wrote a song about Bessie Smith named after her. Singer Norah Jones included the song in a 2002 concert performance at the House of Blues. Excerpt of the lyrics to The Band's "Bessie Smith":
"Bessie was more than just a friend of mine
We shared the good times with the bad
Now many a year has passed me by
I still recall the best thing I ever had
I'm just goin' down the road t' see Bessie
Oh, See her soon
Goin' down the road t' see Bessie Smith
When I get there I wonder what she'll do.."
- The 1996 album of Seattle punk band The Gits, Kings and Queens, included a live piano-accompanied improvisation cover of Smith's "Graveyard Dream Blues" named "Graveyard Blues" sung by blues-influenced vocalist Mia Zapata. The song starts with Zapata telling the audience that "This is a song by (...) Bessie Smith. This is from her to you..." The track is held in high regard by Gits fans and music critics.
- In early 2006, UK alternative Rock/Hip Hop act Bad Music Inc. paid tribute to Smith with their song Bessie. Excerpt of the lyrics to Bad Music Inc's "Bessie":
"It's easy to forget, or not to be aware
So let me take a moment, I've a legacy to share
Bessie, Bessie sing through your pain..."
- Singer/pianist/songwriter Nina Simone dedicates her blues-song "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl" to Bessie Smith on her live-album It Is Finished (1974), stating "Bessie Smith, you know?..." before commencing with the song. Ironically, the song title was changed to "I Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl" on the album, and credited to Ms. Simone.
- Often the subject of concept albums, Bessie has been paid such a recorded tribute by numerous singers, including Juanita Hall, Dinah Washington, and Teresa Brewer.
- The character of Shug Avery in Alice Walker's 'The Color Purple' is reportedly inspired / based on Smith.
- Smith is mentioned in Dory Previn's song A Stone for Bessie Smith on her album Mythical Kings & Iguanas. It refers to the fact that Smith's grave remained unmarked until Janis Joplin and Juanita Green bought a headstone.
- English singer/songrwiter Jack Penate includes a line about Bessie in his track, 'Learning Lines'
"Bessie Smith sings the blues"
- Jasen, David A.; Gene Jones (September 1998). Spreadin'Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880-1930. Schirmer Books, 289. ISBN 978-0028647425.
- Albertson's "Bessie" (Revised Edition, page 11)
- Based on recollections by contemporaries, including family, related in Albertson's "Bessie" (Revised Edition, pages 14-15)
- Oliver, Paul. Bessie Smith. in Kernfeld, Barry. ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd Edition, Vol. 3. London: MacMillan, 2002. p. 604.
- Smith's death, and a popular, but now discredited, version of the circumstances surrounding it — namely, that she died as a result of being refused admission to a "Whites Only" hospital in Clarksdale (a myth started by jazz writer/producer John Hammond in an inaccurate article that appeared in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine) — formed the basis for Edward Albee's 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith.
- Historical marker placed on Mississippi Blues Trail. Associated Press. Retrieved on 2007-02-09.
References and further reading
- Albertson, C., Liner notes, Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings, Volumes 1 - 5, Sony Music Entertainment, 1991.
- Albertson, C., Bessie, Stein and Day, (New York), 1972.
- Albertson, C., Bessie (Revised and Expanded Edition), Yale University Press (New Haven), 2003. ISBN 0-300-09902-9.
- Albertson, C., Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, Schirmer Books (New Haven), 1975.
- Brooks, E., The Bessie Smith Companion: A Critical and Detailed Appreciation of the Recordings, Da Capo Press (New York), 1982.
- Davis, A. Y., Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Pantheon Books (New York), 1998. ISBN 0-679-45005-X. Contains 100 pages of lyrics recorded by Smith.
- Eberhardt, C., Out of Chattanooga, Ebco (Chattanooga), 1993.
- Feinstein, E., Bessie Smith, Viking (New York), 1985, ISBN 0670806420.
- Grimes, S., Backwaterblues: In Search of Bessie Smith, Rose Island Pub. (Amherst), 2000, ISBN 0970708904.
- Kay, J., Bessie Smith, Absolute (New York), 1997. ISBN 1-899791-55-8.
- Manera, A., Bessie Smith, Raintree (Chicago), 2003. ISBN 0739868756.
- Martin, F., Bessie Smith, Editions du Limon (Paris), 1994. ISBN 290722431X.
- Moore, C., Somebody's Angel Child: The Story of Bessie Smith, T. Y. Crowell Co. (New York), 1969. A children's book that is largely fiction.
- Oliver, P., Bessie Smith, Cassell (London), 1959.
- Welding, P., and Byron, T., eds., Bluesland: Portraits of Twelve Major American Blues Masters, Dutton (New York), 1991. ISBN 0-525-93375-1. Includes "T'Aint Nobody's Business If I Do" by Chris Albertson.
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