Today’s featured blues artist is Bessie Smith. Be sure to catch the HBO Special tonight starring Queen Latifah, as the late, great Ms. Bessie Smith!
Wiki: 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.
The 1900 census indicates that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July 1892. However, the 1910 census recorded her birthday as April 15, 1894, a date that appears on all subsequent documents and was observed by the entire Smith family. Census data also contribute to controversy about the size of her family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, while later interviews with Smith’s family and contemporaries did not include these individuals among her siblings.
Bessie Smith was the daughter of Laura (née Owens) and William Smith. William Smith was a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a “minister of the gospel”, in Moulton, Lawrence, Alabama.) He died before his daughter could remember him. By the time she was nine, she had lost her mother and a brother as well. Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings.
To earn money for their impoverished household, Bessie Smith and her brother Andrew began busking on the streets of Chattanooga as a duet: she singing and dancing, he accompanying her on guitar. Their favorite location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of the city’s African-American community.
In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, covertly left home, joining a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. “If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him,” said Clarence’s widow, Maud. “That’s why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child.”
In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe. He arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give Smith an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company also included the unknown singer, Ma Rainey. Smith eventually moved on to performing in various chorus lines, making the “81” Theater in Atlanta her home base. There were times when she worked in shows on the black-owned T.O.B.A (Theater Owners Booking Association) circuit. She would rise to become its biggest star after signing with Columbia Records.
By 1923, when she began her recording career, Smith had taken up residence in Philadelphia. There she met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was released. During the marriage—a stormy one, with infidelity on both sides—Smith became the highest paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own railroad car. Gee was impressed by the money, but never adjusted to show business life, or to Smith’s bisexuality. In 1929, when she learned of his affair with another singer, Gertrude Saunders, Bessie Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.
Smith eventually found a common-law husband in an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton’s uncle and the antithesis of her husband. She stayed with him until her death.
All contemporary accounts indicate that while Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, she probably helped her develop a stage presence. Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta’s “81” Theater. By 1920, Smith had established a reputation in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.
In 1920, sales figures of over 100,000 copies for “Crazy Blues,” an Okeh Records recording by singer Mamie Smith (no relation) pointed to a new market. The recording industry had not directed its product to blacks, but the success of the record led to a search for female blues singers. Bessie Smith was signed to Columbia Records in 1923 by Frank Walker, a talent agent who had seen her perform years earlier. Her first session for Columbia was February 15, 1923. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia’s regular A- series; when the label decided to establish a “race records” series, Smith’s “Cemetery Blues” (September 26, 1923) was the first issued.
She scored a big hit with her first release, a coupling of “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Downhearted Blues”, which its composer Alberta Hunter had already turned into a hit on the Paramount label. Smith became a headliner on the black T.O.B.A. circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter months and doing tent tours the rest of the year (eventually traveling in her own railroad car), Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Columbia nicknamed her “Queen of the Blues,” but a PR-minded press soon upgraded her title to “Empress”.
Smith had a powerfully strong voice that recorded very well from her first record, made during the time when recordings were made acoustically. With the coming of electrical recording (her first electrical recording was “Cake Walking Babies (From Home)” recorded Tuesday, May 5, 1925), the sheer power of her voice was even more evident. She was also able to benefit from the new technology of radio broadcasting, even on stations that were in the segregated south. For example, after giving a concert for a white-only audience at a local theater in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 1923, she then performed a late night concert on station WMC, where her songs were very well received by the radio audience.
She made 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, most notably Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, and Charlie Green.
Smith’s career was cut short by a combination of the Great Depression, which nearly put the recording industry out of business, and the advent of “talkies”, which spelled the end for vaudeville. She never stopped performing, however. While the days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, Smith continued touring and occasionally singing in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called Pansy, a musical in which top critics said she was the only asset.