Saturday Open Thread | Classic Blues Week! | Bessie Smith

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.”[4]

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.[3]

All contemporary accounts indicate that while Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, she probably helped her develop a stage presence.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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),[8] 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.[9]

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.







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42 Responses to Saturday Open Thread | Classic Blues Week! | Bessie Smith

  1. rikyrah says:

    I had two groupons that were about to expire, so I went and got the food. The first was a sandwich place. It wasn’t bad at all.

    The second though, was a revelation. It’s a bakery.

    They had peanut butter brownies.


    A few minutes ago I tried one of the cupcakes. It was chocolate on chocolate. The key to a good cupcake is icing…and, the icing was unreal. Simply heaven.

  2. rikyrah says:

    Bessie was fabulous.

    Queen Latifah has wanted to play this role for a long time. And once, given the chance, she played the hell out of it.

    How fabulous was it to see all these Black folk in beautiful period costumes. Black folk don’t usually get period costuming unless it’s slavery. But, it captured the vibrancy of that time. Everyone in the piece brought something to the table.

    There are so many of our stories that could be told and would be fascinating to watch, and not only our entertainers…though, I would love a Sammy Davis Jr. biopic starring Don Cheadle.

    Bravo, Queen Latifah!!!

    Emmy noms all the way around!

    • Ametia says:

      BRAVO indeed! I loved the spirit and sisterhood of these women and the complexities of their lives. Living on their own terms and following their own rules.

      Queen Latifah, Monique, and LOL ‘Mama Pope’ Tika and Khandi A. SUPERB!

  3. Ametia says:


  4. Ametia says:

    American Pharoah wins second leg of Triple Crown

    Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah won the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, giving him a chance to capture the Triple Crown if he wins the Belmont Stakes on June 6.

    Read more »

  5. Ametia says:

    Asian Americans file complaint alleging discrimination in Harvard admissions

    42 min ago – More than 60 Asian American organizations filed a complaint (see below) with the federal government on Friday alleging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian Americans in the admissions process and calling for an investigation

  6. rikyrah says:

    watched my finales.

    LOVED Grimm.

    LOVED it.

    Loved The Blacklist.

    Still upset about Scandal, though.

    • Ametia says:

      Paul Ryan and his minions have FULL stomachs and EMPTY SOULS.


      WOW! See how that works, Zombie-eyed Granny-KILLER!

  7. rikyrah says:

    HBO’s “Bessie” Slated To Be The Year’s Most Riveting Biopic
    Comments: 0 | Leave A Comment

    The blues is not about people knowing you, it’s about you knowing the people.”
    Before there was a Billie or an Etta, and long before the contemporary R&B diva Beyonce began snatching wigs, there was a bluesy jazz singer who reigned supreme – Bessie Smith.
    With the help of acclaimed Pariah director Dee Rees, HBO is bringing the life and times of 1920s blues singer Bessie Smith to the small screen with Golden Globe-winning actress Queen Latifah.
    Known as the “Empress Of Blues,” Bessie was popular for her innovative blues and jazz style in the early 1920s. Capitalizing off her popularity and success, Bessie became one of the highest paid black musicians of her time and one of the first to ink a major record label deal.
    In an era when the narrative behind innovative creators was obscure and mysterious, the Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois-written film explores the complicated, yet fascinating and seemingly under-appreciated life of an influencer many grew to know and love as Atlanta’s 81 Theatre starlet.
    From the tumultuous relationship with her husband Jack Gee (Michael K. Williams), to being mentored by Ma “Mother of Blues” Rainey (Mo’Nique), and her outlook on intimacy being beyond heterosexuality, Bessie Smith’s legacy is finally receiving the recognition it deserved three scores and many years ago.
    Queen Latifah will be supported by a star-studded cast, which includes Michael K. Williams, Academy Award-winning actress Mo’Nique, Mike Epps, Tika Sumpter, Charles S. Dutton, Tory Kittles, and Khandi Alexander.
    Bessie is set to air on HBO Saturday, May 16 at 8 p.m. EST. Check out our exclusive Bessie commentary starring Queen Latifah in the video player down under.

  8. Happy Saturday, everyone!

    Ametia & Rikyrah, check your mail.

  9. eliihass says:

    Evil. Pure evil. Watching MHP and she’s playing a 911 call from some racist guy who shot and killed a young black boyfriend of his daughter’s in their home.

    Told the 911 attendant that it was ‘just a black boy’. Wow!

    • Ametia says:

      I saw & heard him, eliihass. yes; he killed another nigga, no BIGGIE!

      “He has baggy pants like ‘they’ do.”

      There’s no way they can contain their disdanin, ignorance, and bigotry. HATEFUL POS.

  10. Ametia says:


  11. Ametia says:

    Why Blues Titan Bessie Smith Still Kills It
    May 16, 2015

    HBO is betting that millennials will embrace a female blues singer born in the 19th century. Given the undying power of her music, HBO just might be right.

    Can you guess the artist?

  12. Ametia says:

    FLOTUS’ Tuskegee address has become a national discourse.


    • eliihass says:

      Indeed! Just like so many things about her, one comes back to this speech again and again, and it only gets that more beautiful and profound and deep and sobering. And her genuineness and passion is palpable. You see it her eyes, and you hear it in her voice. You know she spoke those words from her heart. That was not written by any speech writer. That was her story, shared in such a way that every single person who heard it, got it.

      What I’ve always loved about her is that she always understood the importance of speaking in such a way that EVERYONE at EVERY level understands exactly what she’s saying without needing it to be explained. The best communicators know that.

      Just like with her DNC speech, EVERYONE got it. And EVERYONE related to EVERYTHING she said. She cut Mitt Romney so badly without ever mentioning his name. Damn. She hurt Mitt so, and just smiled so sweetly never missing a beat at any time like as she did it. She didn’t even behave like she was even aware she was doing serious damage to Mitt with her sweet words. She talked about gratitude equally for the teachers and janitors who kept the school clean. She praised her husband so passionately, her voice broke and her eyes filled with tears, and then she told us that if we wanted to ensure a better future for our kids, for ourselves and for our country, then it was up to us to do everything in our power to re-elect the only person who had lived the experiences that helped him make those important judgement calls when it matters most. Damn!

  13. President Obama ordered the raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf

  14. Ametia says:

    MHP & panel on breaking down FLOTUS’ May 9 Tuskegee speech.

    • eliihass says:

      It was fantastic! So much genuine passion from the panelists…
      I’ve told you guys that Peter Slevin has a serious crush on FLOTUS – even though he didn’t get to speak much as the women didn’t really let him get a word in.

      But he’s almost like FLOTUS’ chief of staff/communications director at this point. He’s so positively great in his respectful and effusive praise and defense of FLOTUS, he puts White House staff to shame. Absolutely no comparison. You really feel the deep respect he has for FLOTUS as a human being. He vouches do passionately for her character.

      Here he is at the University of Chicago (Institute of Politics) discussing the book. He’s interviewed by some lady named Laura Washington – a Chicago Times Political Analyst (Rikyrah, do you know her..?)

      There’s also a Q & A at the end and some chubby red-faced guy tries to come for Mrs Obama, and Peter Slevin shuts him down.

  15. rikyrah says:

    it’s scary that he’s a Senator and so phucking stupid.

    did he even go to school?



    • Ametia says:


      My right to take whatever i want whenever i want because god has given me the right to do so.

      Guy1: Hey man im gonna take your beer and call it manifest destiny

      Guy 2: Dude, super weak

  16. rikyrah says:

    Good Morning, Everyone :)

    Off to swim and run errands.

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