Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith (ca. 1894-1937) was called "The Empress of the Blues." Her magnificent voice, sense of the dramatic, clarity of diction (you never missed a word of what she sang) and incomparable time and phrasing set her apart from the competition and made her appeal as much to jazz lovers as to lovers of the blues.

Born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith began singing for money on street corners and eventually rose to become the largest-selling recording artist of her day. So mesmerizing was her vocal style—reinforced by her underrated acting and comedic skills—that near-riots frequently errupted when she appeared. Those outside the theaters clamored to get in; those inside refused to leave without hearing more of Smith. Twice she was instrumental in helping save Columbia Records from bankruptcy.

One of the numerous myths about Smith 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 Smith had achieved independent success in a variety of minstrel and tent shows. Rainey and Smith did work together, however, and had established a friendship as early as 1912. No doubt Smith absorbed vocal ideas during her early association with the "Mother of the Blues."

Originally hired as a dancer, Smith 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 the hallmark of the young singer. Her voice was remarkable, filling the largest hall without amplification and reaching out to each listener in beautiful, earthy tones. In Jazz People, Dan Morgenstern quoted guitarist Danny Barker as saying: "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 [U.S.] 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 to Bessie Smith) 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. Smith's first effective recording date, February 16, 1923, produced "Down-Hearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues" and featured piano accompaniment by Clarence Williams. The public bought an astounding 780,000 copies within six months.

Recorded With the Jazz Elite

Smith's contract paid her $125 per viable recording, with no provision for royalties. Frank Walker, who supervised all of Smith's recordings with Columbia through 1931, quickly negotiated new contracts calling first for 12 new recordings at $150 each, then 12 more at $200, and Smiths'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. With her earnings, Smith was able to purchase a custom-designed railroad car for herself and her troupe in 1925. 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, commanding a weekly salary that peaked at $2,000.

Smith recorded with a variety of accompanists during her ten-year recording career, 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, examples of which 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." Smith and Louis Armstrong's first collaborations—1925's brilliant "St. Louis Blues" and "Cold in Hand Blues"—marked the end of the acoustic recording era, with Smith's first electrically recorded sides occuring 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." Piano giant James P. Johnson's accompaniment sparkled on 1927's "Preachin' the Blues" and "Back Water Blues" as well as on 1929's "He's Got Me Goin'," "Worn Out Papa Blues," and "You Don't Understand."

Zealous Fans Created Mob Scenes

Feeding on the popularity of her records, Smith's tour date schedule escalated. As she traveled from her home base of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Georgia, and New York City, adoring crowds greeted her at each stop. Extra police became the norm for controling crowd enthusiasm. 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 Smith'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." Schuller further heralded Smith as "the first complete jazz singer" whose influence on Billie Holiday and a whole generation of jazz singers cannot be overestimated.

Lived and Sang the Blues

In spite of her commercial success, Smith's personal life never strayed far from the blues theme. Her marriage to Jack Gee was stormy, punctuated by frequent fights and breakups despite their adoption of a son, Jack Gee, Jr., in 1926. Their nuptials ended in a bitter separation in 1929; Gee then attempted to keep the boy from Smith for years by moving him from one boarding home to another. Smith also battled liquor. Though able to abstain from drinking for considerable periods, Smith often indulged in binges that were infamous among her troupe and family. Equally well known to her intimates was Smith's bisexual promiscuity.

Smith's popularity as a recording artist crested around 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 appearances continued at a brisk pace, the price she could demand dipped; she was forced to sell her beloved railroad car, and the smaller towns she played housed theaters in which general quality and facilities were a burden. Even so she starred in a 1929 two-reel film, St. Louis Blues, a semi-autobiographical effort that received some exposure through 1932.

Smith's only appearance on New York's famed 52nd Street came on a cold Sunday afternoon in February of 1936 at the Famous Door, where she was backed by Bunny Berigan, Joe Bushkin, and other regulars of the house 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 Smith's performance. Furthermore, that single afternoon's performance gave rise to other possible Smith appearances with popular swing performers: John Hammond claimed a 1937 recording date teaming Smith and members of the Count Basie band was in the works, Lionel Hampton recalled Goodman's eagerness to record with Smith, and another film was planned. Smith's lean years were ending as the summer of 1937 approached. The recording industry's revival soared on the craziness of the early Swing Era, spear-headed by the success of Benny Goodman's band. Smith had proven adaptable in her repertoire and could certainly swing with the best of them; moreover, blues singing was experiencing a revival in popular taste. Even Smith's personal life was on the upswing with the steady and loving influence of her companion, Richard Morgan.

On the morning of September 26, 1937, Smith 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 fatal to Smith. A persistent rumor later developed that Smith bled to death because a white hospital refused to admit her. The myth originated in a 1937 Down Beat story written by John Hammond and was perpetuated by Edward Albee's 1960 play, The Death of Bessie Smith. Thirty-five years after Smith's death, author Chris Albertson finally dispelled the rumor. Albertson won a Grammy award for his booklet that accompanied the 1970 Columbia reissue of Smith's complete works—Columbia's second major reissue project. His deeper investigations resulted in the acclaimed 1972 biography, Bessie.

Albertson described Smith'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—a 'has been,' fatally injured on a dark Mississippi road eight days earlier—was 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."

Further Reading on Bessie Smith

Albertson, Chris, Bessie, Stein and Day, 1972.

Brooks, Edward, The Bessie Smith Companion, Da Capo, 1983.

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 1891-1942, Volume 2, 5th revised and enlarged edition, 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 and Co., 1957.

Terkel, Studs, and Millie Hawk Daniel, Giants of Jazz, revised edition, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.

Esquire, June 1969.

High Fidelity, October 1970; May 1975.

National Review, July 1, 1961.

Newsweek, February 1, 1971; January 22, 1973.

Saturday Review, December 29, 1951; February 26, 1972.