Known as the “Empress Of Blues”, Bessie Smith was said to have revolutionized the vocal end of Blues Music. She showed a lot of pride as an independent African-American woman. Her style in performance and lyrics often reflected her lifestyle. Bessie Smith was one of the first female jazz artists, and she paved the way for many musicians who followed.
Bessie was born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee to a part time Baptist preacher, William Smith, and his wife Laura. The family was large and poor. Soon after she was born her father died. Laura lived until Bessie was only nine years old. The remaining children had to learn to take care of themselves. Her sister Viola then raised her. But it was her oldest brother, Clarence, who had the most impact on her. Clarence always encouraged Bessie to learn to sing and dance. After Clarence had joined the Moses Stokes Minstrel Show, Bessie got auditions. Bessie’s career began when she was ‘discovered’ by none other than Ma Rainey when Ma’s revue, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, was passing through Chattanooga around 1912 and she had the occasion to hear young Bessie sing. Ma took Bessie on the road with the show and communicated, consciously or not, the subtleties and intricacies of an ancient and still emerging art form. (Snow).
Bessie started by working small-time traveling tent shows. With the help of Clarence she began her professional career in 1912, and soon became a featured singer. Smith was an established star with the black audiences throughout the south by the time she moved to Philadelphia in 1921. However, two more years would pass before she would begin her recording career. Soon after moving to Philadelphia, Smith supposedly auditioned for Okeh and other recording companies. However, each time the talent scouts would say that her voice was “too rough” to record. Finally, Columbia Records’ Frank Walter signed Smith to a recording contract and set her up in a studio on February 15, 1923. Although there is nothing that survives from her very first recording date, the following date she recorded “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues”. The record sold more than 750,000 copies that year, making her a blues star. She then married Jack McGee in June 1923.
... is a sick, sad thing, makes you wonder how big Bessie Smith could have been if those boundaries had not been there. ... was called the mother of the blues. Ma Rainy gave Bessie the guidance to become the Blues legend she is today. 1923 was ... year for Bessie, she got married to a man named Jack G. and she recorded her first album for Columbia records, which sold ...
In the mid-twenties she toured the entire south and most of the major northern cities, always as the star attraction on the bill. Smith recorded with a number of noted musicians. These included pianists Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson, cornetist Louie Armstrong, saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman, and clarinetist Buster Bailey. Many of her earlier songs featured only a piano accompaniment, which allowed sole focus on Smith’s vocals. Yet the songs cut with Armstrong featured the two most prominent black recording artists of the 1920s. They worked off each other’s talents and sang too the blues backdrops while keeping the southern roots. In 1929 Smith recorded the haunting “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, a tune blues historian William Barlow called Smith’s “…personal epitaph and a depression era classic.” She was the highest paid black entertainer and completely booked at $1500 a week. Her more than 150 recordings that followed, some of which sold 100,000 copies in a week, propelled her to fame and immortality (Sanders).
Alberta Hunter stated, “Bessie Smith was the greatest of them all. There never was one like her and there’ll never be one like here again. Even though she was raucous and loud, she had sort of a tear – no, not a tear, but there was a misery in what she did. It was as though there was something she had to get out, something she just had to bring fore.”
... Press, February 14, 2007. "Cause of Anna Nicole Smiths Death Uncertain".The New York Times, February 9, 2007. The Doctor Who Scored ... , Florida with her lawyer and boyfriend, Howard K. Stern.Smiths private nurse discovered her first and then called security officials ... according to the New York Times. Several months before her death, the name of Anna Nicole Smith was mentioned speaking about the ...
By 1930 her career began to fade due to the public’s changing musical tastes, mismanagement of her affairs, and her heavy drinking. She had started drinking as a teen and drank more heavily as time passed. Columbia dropped her from its roster in 1931. Her last recorded song, “Gimme a Pigfoot,” was under the direction of talent scout John Hammond in 1933. Smith continued to perform, mostly in the South, although it seemed the classical blues era was over. She was even in a movie when W.C. Handy asked her to play the lead in a short film
“St. Louis Blues”, somewhat based on one of his songs. Her last New York appearance was in 1936. She had a Sunday afternoon recording session sponsored but United Hot Clubs of American at the original famous Door on 52nd Street.
On the night of Hammond’s departure to Mississippi to bring her back to New York, September 27, 1937, Smith was in a car accident with an oncoming truck. Her crash was just below Clarksdale, Mississippi driving south on Highway 61. Her right arm was nearly severed. She was taken to the G.T. Thomas Hospital where she died of blood loss. She is now buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.
For many African-Americans, Smith was more than just a blues singer, thanks to an aggressive personality and often-excessive lifestyle. It seemed as if she was describing black culture in the 1920s through her songs. Smith recorded at least 160 songs for Columbia Records from 1923 to 1933. Many of these songs are blues classics. Bessie Smith was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Bessie Smith had a huge voice capable of strength and softness, which she left behind on all her recordings.
Bibliography:Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York:
Pantheon Books, 1999
Friedwald, Will. Jazz Singing. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996
Sanders, Madelyn. Bessie Smith.
“Smith, Bessie”. Encarta Encyclopedia. 2001 Ed.
Snow, Joel. Bessie Smith. September 17, 1995