They called her the "Empress of the Blues." Born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith began singing for coins on street corners and rose to become the largest-selling recording artist of her day. So mesmerizing was her vocal style in person, reinforced as it was by her underacclaimed acting and comedic skills, near-riots frequently broke out when she appeared. Those outside the theaters clamored to get in; those inside refused to leave without hearing more of their Bessie. At two critical points, she was instrumental in helping to save Columbia Records from bankruptcy. While at her peak, in 1925, Smith bought a custom-designed railroad car for herself and her troupe on which they could travel and live. This luxury allowed her to circumvent some of the dispiriting effects of the racism found in both Northern and Southern states as she traveled with her own tent show or with the Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA) shows throughout much of the country, commanding a weekly salary that peaked at $2,000.
One of the many myths about Bessie is that she was tutored (some versions claim kidnapped) by Ma Rainey, the prototype blues singer, and forced to tour with Rainey's show. In fact, Rainey didn't have her own show until after 1916, long after Bessie had achieved independent success through her apprenticeships in a variety of minstrel and tent shows. Rainey and Smith worked together and established a friendship as early as 1912, and no doubt Smith absorbed vocal ideas during her early association with the "Mother of the Blues." Originally hired as a dancer, Bessie rapidly polished her skills as a singer and often combined the two, weaving in a natural flair for comedy. From the beginning, communication with her audience was a hallmark of the young singer. Her voice was remarkable. Able to fill the largest hall without amplification, it reached out to each listener with its earthiness and beauty. In Jazz People, Dan Morgenstern quotes guitarist Danny Barker: "Bessie Smith was a fabulous deal to watch. She was a large, pretty woman and she dominated the stage. You didn't turn your head when she went on. You just watched Bessie. If you had any church background like people who came from the South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people. She could bring about mass hypnotism."
When Mamie Smith (no relation) recorded the first vocal blues in 1920 and sold 100,000 copies in the first month, record executives discovered a new market and the "race record" was born. Shipped only to the South and selected areas of the North where blacks congregated, these recordings of black performers found an eager audience, a surprising segment of which was made up of white Southerners to whose ears the sounds of the blues were quite natural. Bessie's first effective recording date, February 16,1923, produced "Down-Hearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues," with piano accompaniment by Clarence Williams. The public bought an astounding 780,000 copies within six months. Bessie's contract paid her $125 per usable recording, with no provision for royalties. Frank Walker, who supervised all of Bessie's recordings with Columbia through 1931, quickly negotiated new contracts calling first for twelve new recordings at $150 each, then twelve more at $200nd Bessie's fabulous recording career of 160 titles was successfully launched. On the brink of receivership in 1923, Columbia recovered largely through the sale of recordings by Eddie Cantor, Ted Lewis, Bert Williams, and its hottest-selling artist, Bessie Smith.
During her ten-year recording career, the first six of which produced most of her output, Bessie recorded with a variety of accompanists, including some of the most famous names in jazz as well as some of the most obscure. Among the elite were pianists Fred Longshaw, Porter Grainger, and Fletcher Henderson; saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet; trombonist Charlie Green; clarinetists Buster Bailey and Don Redman; and cornetist Joe Smith. Perhaps her most empathetic backing came from Green and Smith, as well as from Louis Armstrong and piano giant James P. Johnson. Examples of the support given her by Green and Smith may be found on such songs as "The Yellow Dog Blues," "Empty Bed Blues," "Trombone Cholly," "Lost Your Head Blues," and "Young Woman's Blues." When Bessie and Louis Armstrong first teamed up for 1925's brilliant "St. Louis Blues" and "Cold In Hand Blues" it marked the end of the acoustic recording era, with Bessie's first electrically recorded sides coming on May 6, 1925. Other standouts with Armstrong include "Careless Love Blues," "Nashville Woman's Blues," and "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle." Johnson's accompaniment sparkles on 1927's "Preachin' the Blues" and "Back Water Blues," as well as a number of 1929 efforts, "He's Got Me Goin'," "Worn Out Papa Blues," and "You Don't Understand."
Feeding on the popularity of her records, Bessie's personal-appearance schedule escalated. As she moved from her home base of Philadelphia to Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, and New York, adoring crowds greeted her at each stop. Extra police details to control the enthusiasm became the norm. What was the attraction? Critic and promoter John Hammond wrote in 1937: ". .. Bessie Smith was the greatest artist American jazz ever produced; in fact, I'm not sure that her art did not reach beyond the limits of the term 'jazz.' She was one of those rare beings, a completely integrated artist capable of projecting her whole personality into music. She was blessed not only with great emotion but with a tremendous voice that could penetrate the inner recesses of the listener." In Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller listed the components of Bessie's vocal style: "a remarkable ear for and control of intonation, in all its subtlest functions; a perfectly centered, naturally produced voice (in her prime); an extreme sensitivity to word meaning and the sensory, almost physical, feeling of a word; and, related to this, superb diction and what singers call projection. She was certainly the first singer on jazz records to value diction, not for itself, but as a vehicle for conveying emotional states. . . . Perhaps even more remarkable was her pitch control. She handled this with such ease and naturalness that one is apt to take it for granted. Bessie's fine microtonal shadings . . . are all part of a personal, masterful technique of great subtlety, despite the frequently boisterous mood or language." Further, Schuller heralds Bessie as "the first complete jazz singer," whose influence on Billie Holiday and a whole generation of jazz singers cannot be overestimated.
In spite of her commercial success, Bessie's personal life never strayed far from the blues theme. Her marriage to Jack Gee was stormy, punctuated by frequent fights and breakups, and, despite the 1926 adoption of Jack Gee, Jr., it ended in a bitter separation in 1929, after which Gee contrived to keep the boy from Bessie for years by moving him from one boarding home to another. Another battle Bessie waged was with the liquor bottle. Though able to abstain from drinking for considerable periods, Bessie often indulged in binges that were infamous among her troupe and family. Equally well known to her intimates was Bessie's bisexual promiscuity.
Bessie rode the crest of recorded popularity until about 1929, when the three-pronged fork of radio, talking pictures, and the Great Depression pitched the entire recording industry onto the critical list. Though her personal-appearance schedule continued at a brisk pace, the prices she could demand dipped, she was forced to sell her beloved railroad car, and the smaller towns she played housed theaters whose general quality and facilities were a burden. Even so, she starred in a 1929 two-reel film, "St. Louis Blues," a near-autobiographical effort that received some exposure until 1932.
Bessie's lean years were coming to an end in the summer of 1937. The recording industry's revival soared on the craziness of the early Swing Era, spearheaded by the success of the Benny Goodman band. Bessie had proved adaptable in her repertoire and could certainly swing with the best of them; even better, blues singing was experiencing a revival in popular taste. Bessie's only appearance on New York's famed Fifty-second Street came on a cold February Sunday afternoon in 1936 at the Famous Door, when she was backed by Bunny Berigan, Joe Bushkin, and other regulars of the "Door" band. The impact of her singing that day has remained with those present for more than half a century. Much was made of the fact that Mildred Bailey wisely refused to follow Bessie's performance. Further, that one afternoon's singing gave rise to other possible Smith appearances with popular swing performers: John Hammond claimed a 1937 record date teaming Bessie and members of the Basie band was in the works; Lionel Hampton recalled Goodman's eagerness to record with Bessie. Another film was planned. Even Bessie's personal life was on the upswing in 1937 with the steady and loving influence of companion Richard Morgan.
Early in the morning of September 26,1937, Bessie and Morgan were driving from a Memphis performance to Darling, Mississippi, for the next day's show. Near Clarksdale, Mississippi, their car was involved in an accident that was fatal to Bessie. One of the persistent myths about Bessie is that she bled to death because a white hospital refused to admit her. This story was given impetus by the unfortunate 1937 down beat story by John Hammond, and was perpetuated by Edward Albee's 1960 play, The Death of Bessie Smith. Author Chris Albertson puts this myth firmly to rest. Albertson won a Grammy award for his booklet that accompanied the 1970 Columbia reissue of Bessie's complete works (their second major reissue project). He was spurred to deeper investigation, resulting in his acclaimed 1972 biography, Bessie.
Albertson describes Bessie's funeral: "On Monday, October 4, 1937, Philadelphia witnessed one of the most spectacular funerals in its history. Bessie Smith, a black superstar of the previous decade 'has been,' fatally injured on a dark Mississippi road eight days earlieras given a send-off befitting the star she had never really ceased to be... . When word of her death reached the black community, the body had to be moved [to another location] which more readily accommodated the estimated ten thousand admirers who filed past her bier on Sunday, October 3... . The crowd outside was now seven thousand strong, and policemen were having a hard time holding it back. To those who had known Bessie in her better days, the sight was familiar."
The following Columbia LP reissues represent the entire published output of Bessie Smith. The notes in the accompanying booklet are by Smith biographer Chris Albertson. Many of the records used in this remastering process were borrowed from the Yale University collection donated by Carl Van Vechten and from the private collection of Robert Fertig.
The World's Greatest Blues Singer, Columbia GP 33, 1970.
Any Woman's Blues, Columbia G 30126, 1970.
Empty Bed Blues, Columbia G 30450, 1971.
The Empress, Columbia G 30818, 1971.
Nobody's Blues But Mine, Columbia, G 31093, 1971.
Albertson, Chris, Bessie, Stein and Day, 1972.
Donaldson, Norman, and Betty Donaldson, How Did They Die?, St. Martin's Press, 1980.
Kinkle, Roger D., The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz 1900-1950, Volume 3, Arlington House, 1974.
Morgenstern, Dan, Jazz People, Harry N. Abrams, 1976.
Rust, Brian, Jazz Records 1897-1942,5th Revised and Enlarged Edition, Volume 2, Storyville Publications, 1982.
Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1968.
Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Shapiro, Nat, and Nat Hentoff, Editors, The Jazz Makers (Bessie Smith chapter by George Hoefer), Rinehart & Co., 1957.
Terkel, Studs, and Millie Hawk Daniel, Giants of Jazz, revised edition, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.
Esquire, June 1969.
High Fidelity Magazine, October 1970; May 1975. National Review, July 1, 1961.
Newsweek, February 1, 1971; January 22, 1973.
Saturday Review, December 29, 1951; February 26, 1972.
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