Bessie Smith

Apr 24th, 2013 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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bessie smith1894(?) – 1937 – Bessie Smith’s outsize voice and personality made her one of the most popular performers of the early 20th century. Her willingness to fight against any slight, her enormously powerful singing style, and her passion for life informed her music and engaged audiences in that unique expression of the African American experience, “The Blues.”

Singing at a Young Age

The place of Smith’s birth, Chattanooga, Tennessee, is more certain than the date, which was not recorded at the time (likely due to her race). Her marriage certificate states 1894. She was the eighth child of a poor family, whose circumstances worsened with her mother’s death when Smith was eight years old. She began singing on street corners for pennies at the age of nine or 10, and achieved early success even at that tender age. A local club owner hired her to perform, and this is probably where Smith was first heard by her mentor-to-be, Ma Rainey, whose revue was on tour through Chattanooga in 1912. Smith joined Rainey’s road show, and learned about music and life from the greatly accomplished singer.

Smith subsequently began working small revues, tours, carnivals, and honky-tonks on her own, increasing her skill and reputation. Her first recording, “Down Hearted Blues,” appeared in 1923 and was an enormous success, selling over two million copies in its first year of release. This also marked a turning point in the music industry for Black artists. With the success of her recording, Columbia Records created a separate “race records” division for African American performers. Its success elevated Smith’s status to the point where she appeared on the finest “race” vaudeville circuits booked by the preeminent TOBA, or Theatre Owners Booking Association. Smith toured much of the U.S. during the mid to late 1920s. She became the foremost recording artist in the world and the highest paid Black entertainer of her time, earning as much as $2,000 per week for performing and $125 per recording. She recorded regularly throughout the decade with significant jazz instrumentalists, and toured in her own private railway car. Many critics believe that her rendition of “St. Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong is one of the finest recordings of the 1920s.

Smith could be obstreperous and even violent, and at six feet and 200 pounds such encounters could turn dangerous. Smith had a keen sense of her race. While her popularity transcended racial boundaries, she shunned the company of “elite” (white) society, and disliked Blacks whom she thought were trying to act white. Despite her financial success, she continued her familiar ways based on street-life in the South and a passionate approach to all things. As the saying goes, “You gotta pay the dues if you wanna sing the blues.”

The early to mid-1930s brought changes that led to a decline in the singer’s fortunes. Musical styles were shifting; radio and movies competed for attention. The economic depression of that decade hurt the entertainment industry. And Smith’s appetite for gin, which began in her teens, grew excessive. As always, her life informed her art, and such classics as “Gin House Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” recount her own experiences.

Tragic Ending

The late 1930s seemed to offer the possibility of a comeback. Smith had expanded her style to adapt to changing tastes with a more swing-oriented feel, and her producer, John Hammond, arranged a 1936 concert for her in New York. A number of recording sessions and concerts were planned. In 1937, as Hammond was preparing to bring Smith to New York for a recording session, she and her pianist crashed their car on the road to Memphis. Smith was badly wounded, and died. An article written by Hammond, alleging that Smith died because she’d been taken to a Whites-only hospital where she was denied treatment sensationalized the tragedy. Hammond retracted the allegation, but not before the story had fueled a post-mortem return to fame for the singer, including a stage play memorializing the incident by Edward Albee, “The Death of Bessie Smith.”

But the real legacy was in her music, which survives in over 160 recordings with the jazz greats of her time, including Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, Joe Smith, Fletcher Henderson, and Louis Armstrong. In the words of one critic, she had “…a huge sweeping voice, capable of strength and tenderness…. She could convey the entire meaning of a line by a subtle accent on a syllable.” Ken Burns, maker of the documentary film “Jazz,” has written: “Smith was unquestionably the greatest of the vaudeville blues singers and brought the emotional intensity, personal involvement, and expression of blues singing into the jazz repertory with unexcelled artistry.” But perhaps the epitaph on Smith’s tombstone says it most memorably: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”


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