Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues

Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues
American blues and jazz vocalist Bessie Smith (1894–1937) dances on stage in front of a line of men, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, early twentieth century. Anthony Barbosa / Getty Images

Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – Sept. 26, 1937) was one of the most popular and best-selling performers and recording artists of the 1920s. She was a highly accomplished blues singer of the "Classic Blues" tradition, a woman who began singing on the streets of Chattanooga, Tennessee at the age of 10, and rose to become the highest paid black entertainer in America.

She had a powerful voice, which she enhanced with a precise control of pitch and a unique expressive ability.

Bessie Smith sang city blues, a song style of the early 20th century United States that was written by male songwriters and performed exclusively by female singers from the professional vaudeville stage, accompanied only by a pianist or by a small jazz band.

Early Years

Bessie Smith was born on April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was the youngest of eight children born to a part-time Baptist preacher who ran a small mission in the one-room wooden shack that was their home. Her parents died before she turned 10, and her oldest sister Viola raised the children by taking in laundry. At an early age, Bessie Smith and her brother Andrew became street performers: She sang and did dance steps while he accompanied her on the guitar.

Bessie did find time to attend West Main Street Elementary School in Chattanooga as far as the 8th or 9th grade.

Personal Life

By all accounts, Smith was a feisty and pugnacious woman, with a strong streak of independence.

She first married in 1922, a man named Earl Love, a soldier from Mississippi, and after he died she married nightwatchman Jack Gee in 1923. In 1925, she informally adopted "Snooks," the six-year-old son of one of her chorus girls (chorines), and later renamed him Jack Gee, Jr.

Bessie Smith was bisexual, and had many affairs with men and women, mostly side men and chorines in her retinue.

Significant, long-lasting relationships included Fred Longshaw, her musical director; Lillian Simpson, an old classmate; and Richard Morgan, a married businessman who became her troupe manager.

Career Beginnings

In 1912, Smith had her first professional gig. She was hired as a dancer by the vaudeville company Moses Stokes, where her brother Clarence had been hired a couple of years earlier. The cast included Will and Gertrude Rainey. Gertrude, or Ma Rainey, is known as the "Mother of the Blues"; she was undoubtedly an influence on Bessie Smith's beginnings. The company toured in Baltimore, Atlantic City, and Philadelphia, where Bessie Smith eventually settled.

By 1913, Bessie Smith regularly worked at the "81" club in Atlanta, eventually becoming the star attraction of the Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA) chain, a major black vaudeville circuit organization for which 81 was a key venue.

Columbia recording studio impresario Frank Walker first heard Bessie in 1917 (or so he later claimed), and in 1923, Walker arranged for her first recording. The 78 rpm disc included two songs: "Downhearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues." Bessie was accompanied by theatrical producer Clarence Williams on the piano.

When the recording was released, it became a solid hit, with 780,000 copies sold in the first six months. Smith stayed with Columbia Records until 1931. She recorded 160 songs between 1923 and her death in 1937.

Becoming the Empress of the Blues

Smith's career included long-term runs at major venues, playing to packed houses throughout the twenties in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville, and Memphis. She recorded and played gigs with a host of the most important blues and jazz artists of the day, including Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. Her1924 contract with TOBA made her the highest paid black performer in the country.

By 1924, Smith was already known as the "Queen of the Blues" thanks to her clear, expressive voice. Then, Chicago's Defender newspaper crowned her the "Empress of the Blues Singers", beating out figures such as Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters for the title.

Hollywood and the Depression

In 1929, Bessie Smith made her first and only movie: a two-reel short for RCA Phototone based on the blues classic "St. Louis Blues." The 17-minute film boasted a screenplay by W.C. Handy and Kenneth W. Adams, and in it, Bessie sang the song accompanied by James P. Johnson on the piano.

By the time the Depression began in 1929, the classic blues musical tradition was no longer in style, and in 1931 Columbia Records dropped Bessie Smith. Nevertheless, she was able to land fairly steady gigs at the theaters across Philadelphia, and she began recording again in 1933.

Death

Bessie Smith died as the result of a car crash near Clarksville, Tennessee on September 26, 1937. She was buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, but didn't get a headstone until 1970, when blues singer Janis Joplin and businesswoman Juanita Green paid for the stone. The inscription reads, "The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing—Bessie Smith—1895-1937."

Discography

All of Bessie Smith's original records (mostly in 78 rpm) are long out of print, but her work has been compiled and is still available in collections released by Columbia.

  • Empress of the Blues: The Complete Recordings
  • Vol. 1 (Columbia CK 47091)
  • Vol. 2 Columbia CK 47471
  • Vol. 3 (Columbia CK 47474)
  • Vol. 4 (Columbia CK 52838)
  • Vol. 5 (Columbia 57546)
  • The Collection (Columbia CK 4444)

Songs Associated with Bessie Smith

There are 160 recordings of Bessie Smith's wonderful voice, and she sang many more on big city stages between 1913 and her death in 1937.

Here are a few of the classics associated with her.

  • Downhearted Blues. Written by pianist Lovie Austin and Alberta Hunter, "Downhearted Blues" (and its B-side, "Gulf Coast Blues") was the first recording by Bessie Smith. The song's final line — "I've got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand" — is one of the most iconic lyrics of the classic blues tradition.
  • Back-Water Blues. Recorded on February 17, 1927, "Back-Water Blues" was written by Bessie Smith herself. Smith's voice is accompanied by James P. Johnson on piano, simulating the sounds of wind, rain, and rushing water on his instrument. The song was written about the Columbia River flooding of 1926 but came to be associated with the flood of the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries, which took place around the same time the song was released. 
  • St. Louis Blues. The famous blues anthem "St. Louis Blues" was written by guitarist Guy Williams as "Jogo Blues" in 1913, then refined by W.C. Handy for Smith. The song was performed as part of the 1925 Harlem Frolics traveling show, in which Smith and her band traveled in a 72-foot-long custom-built railroad car.

Bessie Smith Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Bessie Smith
  • Also Known As: Empress of the Blues
  • Known For: Blues singer
  • Born: April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Died: September 26, 1937 in Clarksvillle, Tennessee
  • Key Accomplishments: One of the most popular and best-selling blues performers of the 1920s.

References and Further Reading

  • Albertson, Chris. Bessie: Revised and Expanded Version. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Print.