Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer. Nicknamed The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and, along with Louis Armstrong, a major influence on other Jazz vocalists.
Bessie Smith had been in show business since she was a teenager. In 1912, she joined a traveling vaudeville troupe, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and spent the next decade singing in minstrel shows and cabarets all around the South. One popular rumor held that blues great Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the leader of the Foots, had kidnapped the talented young singer and dragged her from show to show against her will. This was not true–Rainey was Smith’s friend and mentor–but it made for great publicity.
An earthy, hot-tempered, hard-drinking woman who loved wild parties, cheap hooch, and down home southern cooking, Bessie Smith didn’t care a fig about what people thought about her. She worked hard and played just as hard. Bessie was black and proud; she never apologized for her color or her background. She was also fearless, at a tent performance in North Carolina in 1927; Bessie discovered that the KKK was preparing to disrupt one of her performances. She confronted the men, cursing at them to leave. Shocked, they slunk away without doing any damage.
Born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, TN, Bessie Smith was the daughter of a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher who died before she was a baby. Before she was nine years old, Bessie had lost her mother and a brother as well, leaving her oldest sister Viola to raise five kids on her own. To help out, Bessie and her Brother Andrew began singing and dancing on the streets for change. Entertainment was a way out of the dead-end jobs of being a maid or taking in laundry for living, jobs that made a woman old before her time. Her older brother Clarence had already left home to try and make a living as a performer. When she was 18, Clarence managed to get Bessie an audition with the Moses Stokes Minstrel Troupe as a dancer. She aced the audition; she would be making ten dollars a week in a company that included the notable blues singer Ma Rainey.
Bessie was a natural from the beginning, with a voice so powerful; she didn’t need a microphone to be heard. She sang songs of love gone wrong, unfaithful lovers, the plight of the black woman in a white man’s world, poverty, loneliness, and physical abuse. She sang the blues because she lived it. Blues singer Alberta Hunter once said, “Even though Bessie was raucous and loud, she had a tear, no, not a tear, but there was a misery in what she did.” By 1915, Bessie left the Stokes Troupe to join the Theater Owners Bookers Association which was an entertainment circuit for black performers. TOBA was also known as “Tough on Black Asses” for the often brutal touring schedule, and the pittance they were paid. Still touring helped Bessie hone her talent, and helped make her name known throughout the country. By the 1920’s Bessie finally hit the big time, starring with Sidney Bechet in the Broadway show How Come? The show didn’t last long but it was another notch in Bessie’s belt.
Around this time, Bessie met the man of her life Jack Gee, a semi-literate security guard from Yonkers, NY. They were married on June 7, 1923. Bessie was 28, considered ancient in those days. She was dressed to the nines in a brand new dress bought by Jack who pawned his watch to buy it, a gesture that she never forgot.
After 1920 she made her home in Philadelphia, and it was there that she was first heard by Clarence Williams, a representative of Columbia Records.In February 1923 she made her first recordings. The two songs recorded that day were “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” and “Down Hearted Blues.” That first record sold 780,000 copies in 6 months and the second record of 2.000.000! She eventually made 160 recordings for Columbia, accompanied by some of the finest musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman.. Bessie’s records weren’t just popular with blacks but also with white listeners who discovered her music. Bessie was paid by the side, she wasn’t royalties the way singers are today, if she had been, she would have raked in millions.Technology was still in its infancy so Bessie had to perform take after take until the producer announced they were done.
By all accounts, Bessie was a mesmerizing presence on stage. She stood anywhere from 5″9 to 6ft in her bare feet, weighing over 200 pounds. She loved clothes, decking herself out in the latest fashions. “Bessie was a real woman, all woman, all the femaleness the world ever saw in one sweet package,” said her friend Mezz Mezzrow, a fellow musician (see earlier InOneEar post). She had great big dimples, and a high-voltage magnet of a personality. After the release of her first record, her fee jumped from $50 to $350 a week. A year later, she could command up to $2,000 a week. Bessie spent money as fast as she made it; buying furs and jewels, outfitting her new husband Jack in $300 suits. She also spread her wealth around, supporting her sisters and their children, buying them houses in Philadelphia.
Bessie Smith’s subject matter was the classic material of the blues: poverty and oppression, love—betrayed or unrequited—and stoic acceptance of defeat at the hands of a cruel and indifferent world. The great tragedy of her career was that she outlived the topicality of her idiom. In the late 1920s her record sales and her fame diminished as social forces changed the face of popular music and bowdlerized the earthy realism of the sentiments she expressed in her music. Her gradually increasing alcoholism caused managements to become wary of engaging her, but there is no evidence that her actual singing ability ever declined.
Bessie and Jack Gee had a turbulent relationship, fighting constantly. She slept with a knife under her pillow and he with a .45. Bessie liked to drink, and when she got liquored up, she wasn’t afraid to use her fists, or whatever weapon was handy. Although she was never faithful, having affairs with both men and women, God forbid Jack should look at another woman. Bessie was a binge drinker, how loved homemade corn liquor (moonshine) over fancier alcohol. No champagne or wine for her (not to mention it was Prohibition!). For days and weeks she’d be sober, but when she fell off the wagon, she might be drunk for days, miss performances or end up in a bar brawl. It wasn’t uncommon for Bessie to thrown down hundred dollar bills and close down the joint so that she party privately.
To keep the gravy rolling in, Bessie had to keep touring constantly, which took a toll on her. Jack Gee would beat Bessie up to keep her in line, keep her working. Since black couldn’t stay in the same hotels as whites, particularly in the South, Bessie bought a custom-made railroad car, 78 feet long, with 7 staterooms, a kitchen, bathroom and a storeroom. During the winter, she toured theaters and during the summer she did tent tours. Soon Bessie was the highest paid entertainer of her day. As she became more famous, she didn’t put on airs, she was the same down to home earthy woman.
But by 1929, the good times were over, not just for Bessie but for the whole country, and so was her marriage to Jack Gee when she discovered that he was using her money to produce a show for a younger, light-skinned beauty named Gertrude Saunders. Although she left him, they were never divorced. Bessie eventually found love again, with an old friend, Richard Morgan who became her manager.
Bessie continued to work but she wasn’t pulling down the fees that she made during her hey-day. In 1931, she lost her record contract with Columbia, but she still managed to tour, although she had to sell her luxurious railroad car. Music was changing as well, becoming more up-tempo, like swing. Other singers were coming up, who were more lady-like such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday. Not to be outdone, Bessie adjusted her style and her repertoire. By 1933, she was back recording for Okeh Records, produced by John Hammond. She recorded 4 sides for which she was paid a mere $37.50 a piece.
Smith was a bold, supremely confident artist who often disdained the use of a microphone and whose art expressed the frustrations and hopes of a whole generation of black Americans. Her tall figure and upright stance, and above all her handsome features, are preserved in a short motion picture, St. Louis Blues (1929), banned for its realism and now preserved in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car accident while traveling along US Route 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving and misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Tire marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith’s old Packard. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.
The first people on the scene were a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation), and his fishing partner Henry Broughton. In the early 1970s, Dr. Smith gave a detailed account of his experience to Bessie’s biographer Chris Albertson. This is the most reliable eyewitness testimony about the events surrounding Bessie Smith’s death.
After stopping at the accident scene, Dr. Smith examined Bessie Smith, who was lying in the middle of the road with obviously severe injuries. He estimated she had lost about a half-pint of blood, and immediately noted a major traumatic injury to her right arm; it had been almost completely severed at the elbow. But Dr. Smith was emphatic that this arm injury alone did not cause her death. Although the light was poor, he observed only minor head injuries. He attributed her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a “sideswipe” collision.
Broughton and Dr. Smith moved the singer to the shoulder of the road. Dr. Smith dressed her arm injury with a clean handkerchief and asked Broughton to go to a house about 500 feet off the road to call an ambulance.
By the time Broughton returned approximately 25 minutes later, Bessie Smith was in shock. Time passed with no sign of the ambulance, so Dr. Smith suggested that they take her into Clarksdale in his car. He and Broughton had almost finished clearing the back seat when they heard the sound of a car approaching at high speed. Dr. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the oncoming car failed to stop and plowed into the doctor’s car at full speed. It sent his car careening into Bessie Smith’s overturned Packard, completely wrecking it. The oncoming car ricocheted off Dr. Smith’s car into the ditch on the right, barely missing Broughton and Bessie Smith.
The young couple in the new car did not have life-threatening injuries. Two ambulances arrived on the scene from Clarksdale; one from the black hospital, summoned by Mr. Broughton, the other from the white hospital, acting on a report from the truck driver, who had not seen the accident victims.
Bessie Smith was taken to Clarksdale’s G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After Smith’s death, an often repeated but now discredited story emerged about the circumstances; namely, that she had died as a result of having been refused admission to a “white only” hospital in Clarksdale. Jazz writer/producer John Hammond gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine.
“The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital, you can forget that.” Dr. Smith told Albertson. “Down in the Deep South cotton country, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks.”
According to the New York Times, over 10, 000 people attended her funeral in Philadelphia. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery. Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.]The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970, when a tombstone—paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith—was erected.
Bessie Smith was an original, who lived a wild tempestuous life. During her lifetime, she rose higher in her profession than any black woman of her time, by totally being herself.