Bessie Smith - Biography
Jazz historian Will Friedwald has rightly noted that Bessie Smith is “the one classic blues artist to outlive the genre, the one artist whose work justifies the entire style.” A major hitmaker in her time – and, in fact, probably the best-paid and most celebrated African-American entertainer of her era – Smith has managed to retain her resonance long after her untimely death in 1937. Some of her staying power may have had something to do with her public image as a big, two-fisted, moonshine-drinking, free-loving blues mama, and, if her biographer Chris Albertson is to be believed, it is an image she lived up to righteously.
But in the end it is the unsullied power of Bessie Smith’s huge, horn-like voice that cuts across the centuries. A somewhat overheated description by society jazzophile Carl Van Vechten of a private performance by Smith at his home in 1928 may still hold an element of the truth: “It was the real thing – a woman cutting her heart open with a knife until it was exposed for us all to see.”
The details of Smith’s early life, including her actual birth date, are hazy. She was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., on April 15, 1894 (the year on her 1923 marriage license application) or 1895 (the year on her belatedly erected tombstone). She was one of six children born to plantation workers William and Laura Smith; both parents died when Bessie was still young, and she was raised by her oldest sister Viola.
She became a street entertainer as a child; her older brother Andrew accompanied her on guitar. Her oldest brother Clarence had even loftier ideas: In 1910 or 1911, he joined Moses Stokes’ traveling company of black entertainers as a comedian and master of ceremonies. When the show returned to Chattanooga in 1912, Bessie joined her brother in the Stokes unit as a dancer. In that troupe, she encountered a performer who would have an impact on her future: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the woman that most historians consider the first of the so-called “classic blues” singers. Some have said that Rainey acted as a mentor for the younger singer in the early days of her career.
For the better part of a decade, Bessie Smith built her profile as a singer as a member of various black troupes – Peter Werley’s Florida Blossoms, Silas Green. For a time, she worked with a partner, Hazel Green. She was popular with Southern audiences, but she settled in Philadephia sometime in the early 1920s, and called the city home for the rest of her life.
In 1920, a New York recording session set the stage for Bessie Smith’s arrival in the big time. On August 10th of that year, a little-known African-American singer named Mamie Smith, who had achieved middling success with her first release on OKeh, stood behind a recording horn and belted out her second single, a Perry Bradford composition called “Crazy Blues.” This brassy, sassy recording was an instantaneous smash; Metronome magazine noted that year, “One of the phonograph companies made over four million dollars on the Blues. Now every phonograph company has a colored girl recording. Blues are here to stay.”
The paper’s observation was right on the money: Every label would attempt to tap the “race” market with its own blues shouter. The vocalists were invariably drawn from the black vaudeville troupes of the day; their songs were often the work of Tin Pan Alley writers and publishers; and the accompanists were frequently recruited from the growing jazz ranks. The big stage names of the day followed Mamie Smith into the studio: Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, and (belatedly) Ma Rainey at Paramount, and Ethel Waters (not truly a blues singer, but close enough) at W.C. Handy’s own Black Swan label.
Some historians believe that Bessie Smith may have recorded as early as 1921 for a long-forgotten label called Emerson, but if she did her recordings were never issued and are long lost. It can’t be said with any certainty how she secured an audition with Columbia Records in New York in early 1923, but either pianist and songwriter Clarence Williams or Frank Walker, head of the nearly bankrupt label’s “race” division, thought that Smith – by now a veteran of more than a decade on the road – was worth a shot.
She cut a version of the old vaudeville tune “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” with a band that included Bubber Miley, Duke Ellington’s hot trumpeter, and clarinetist/saxophonist Sidney Bechet, her sometime boyfriend, in January 1923, but it was not issued. Instead, she made her commercial recording debut with a version of Alberta Hunter and pianist Lovie Austin’s 1922 tune “Down Hearted Blues,” accompanied stiffly by Clarence Williams and recorded on Feb. 16, 1923. Two months later, she signed a one-year contract with Columbia guaranteeing her $125 per side and a minimum of 12 sides – but no royalties.
“Down Hearted Blues” was released in June 1923, and became an instantaneous hit, selling 780,000 copies in six months; according to Joel Whitburn’s Pop Memories 1890-1954, a study of pre-rock pop hits, the 78 was No. 1 in America for four weeks – a stunning feat for a blues record. Suddenly, the lyrics to the song – “Got the world in a jug, got the stopper in my hand” – became the story of Bessie Smith’s life.
Around the time that “Down Hearted Blues” was conquering the nation, Smith married an illiterate ex-night watchman named Jack Gee, who acted as her nominal manager (while Columbia’s Walker did the actual work). Their tempestuous relationship would last for six years; conflict between the hard-drinking singer and the money-hungry Gee would escalate into knock-down-drag-out fistfights and, on at least one occasion, gunplay. (It should be noted that Smith gave as good as she got – she was tough – and also that she carried on numerous extramarital affairs with both men and women.)
Smith quickly became the preeminent blues singer of the day. Her 1923 hits included “Aggravatin’ Papa,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home Blues,” and the much-covered “T’ain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness If I Do.” She became one of the top touring attractions in the country, and not just with black fans: Her popularity in the South was so great that she frequently performed what were billed as “special shows” – performances for all-white audiences. By the fall of 1923, she commanded $1,500 for a week of performances in Detroit – an enormous sum for any performer, black or white; demand for tickets touched off a near-riot.
She toured restlessly in 1924; in Chicago, legend has it that the great jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke threw a week’s pay at her feet during one performance. She also made several trips to the studio that year, backed by such notables as pianist Fletcher Henderson, cornetist Joe Smith, clarinetist Don Redman, and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
In January 1925, she cut the first of two sessions with possibly her greatest accompanist: cornetist Louis Armstrong, then still developing his reputation in Henderson’s band. Smith’s January 14th session with “Satchmo” produced several classics that also became bestsellers: “St. Louis Blues” (a nonpareil reading of the W.C. Handy composition), “”Reckless Blues,” “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues,” and “Cold in Hand Blues.” A second session with Armstrong that May brought forth “Careless Love Blues” and “I Ain’t Goin’ to Play Second Fiddle.” While Smith would often state her preference for cornetist Joe Smith, it is her work with Armstrong that is best remembered today.
In less than two years, Bessie Smith had become one of the country’s major touring attractions; she starred in an elaborate show that included comedians, dancers, and a chorus line. Draping her grand frame in elaborate gowns and headdresses, she displayed her infectious talents as a showman, comedienne, and nonpareil blues shouter. One measure of her enormous success was her purchase in mid-1925 of a private 78-foot-long railroad car that could sleep more than 60 people and carry the gear required to mount her tent show, which she set up and broke down on nights when she wasn’t playing in a conventional venue. Few performers of the time commanded such splendor, and Smith mounted her lavish traveling shows until the end of the ‘20s.
Smith recorded her brand of blues into the late ‘20s; some of her finest records in 1926-27 featured the great stride pianist James P. Johnson (“Back-Water Blues,” “Sweet Mistreater”) and New Orleans trumpeter Tommy Ladnier (“Dyin’ By the Hour,” “Foolish Man Blues”). However, the popularity of “classic blues” began to wane in the late ‘20s; record labels focused increasingly on the work of male soloists, and female blues singers began to sound back-dated. Smith turned to other styles in the studio: Her hits from 1926-27 included the old vaudeville tunes “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “After You’ve Gone” (both of which had been popularized by a white singer, Marion Harris) and the old Irving Berlin number “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
By 1928, the talkies were beginning to give music some stiff competition, and Frank Walker encouraged his blues star to record some raunchier material. Smith responded with the stunning two-part double-entendre number “Empty Bed Blues.” The year also produced the similarly styled “Me and My Gin” and “I’m Wild About That Thing” (the latter featuring guitarist Eddie Lang, duet partner of jazz violinist Joe Venuti and later Bing Crosby’s accompanist).
Smith recorded “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” maybe her defining performance, in May 1929. The same month, she appeared in a miscalculated Broadway show, Pansy, which folded after just three performances. The following month, she made her only film, the two-reel short St. Louis Blues. Shot on Long Island and directed by Dudley Murphy for RCA Phototone, its scenario uncannily mimed Smith’s real-life relationship with her exploitative husband Jack Gee, who had recently left her for vocalist Gertrude Saunders. She sings a poignant version of the title song, which she had recorded so famously with Louis Armstrong in 1925.
The 1929 stock market crash rocked the recording and touring industries. Smith continued to make strong records, but they sold in ever-diminishing numbers; by 1930, she was attempting to connect with waning number of fans with the gospel numbers “On Revival Day” and “Moan Mourners,” recorded with James P. Johnson. She was still capable of cutting potent sides like the comic “Black Mountain Blues” and the lusty “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” but in 1931 she was dropped by Columbia. She returned to the label briefly in 1933, at the behest of producer John Hammond, to record the wonderful valedictory performances “Do Your Duty” and “Gimme a Pigfoot.” But her days as a glittering recording star were over.
Smith continued to be a popular stage act in the ‘30s, touring the South and playing the new Apollo Theatre in Harlem; she tried to adapt her show for the times by appearing in more sedate garb and adding swing-styled material to her repertoire. John Hammond had plans to bring her back to Columbia for sessions with members of Count Basie’s band. It was not to be.
On Sept. 26, 1937, Smith and her manager and companion Richard Morgan were driving south in the middle of the night from Memphis on Highway 61; they planned to stop in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to rest before a performance of Smith’s show Broadway Rastus in nearby Darling. Morgan, who was driving, misjudged the distance of his car from a truck and crashed into it. The truck, which sustained only minor damage, sped off, leaving Bessie Smith dying by the side of the road.
A story, based entirely on hearsay, was written by John Hammond and published in Downbeat, claiming that Smith died a victim of Southern segregation after she was refused attention at a whites-only hospital in Memphis. This legend – which was perpetuated in Edward Albee’s 1960 play The Death of Bessie Smith – was complete fiction. A white doctor on his way to a fishing trip who came upon the accident scene had summoned an ambulance to take Smith to the Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, where she died from shock and multiple injuries on the morning of September 26th.
Bessie Smith’s towering posthumous reputation benefited from the fact that her master recordings -- unlike those of many of her contemporaries, who recorded for labels that went belly-up during the Depression – were controlled by a major label. John Hammond – who had dedicated his famous Carnegie Hall “From Spirituals to Swing” concert of December 1938 to Smith’s memory – saw to it that the singer’s music remained in print, and oversaw both an early LP series during the ‘50s and a sweeping re-release of Smith’s complete catalog in the ‘70s. Her music was reissued in its entirety once more in five Columbia boxed sets during the CD era.
In August 1970, Hammond was present at a ceremony in Philadelphia where a new grave marker for Smith was unveiled. It was paid for by Janis Joplin, the white blues-rock performer who owed much of her musical style and lifestyle to Smith, and a local businesswoman. The stone bore the legend, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”