Smith in 1936 (photograph by Carl Van Vechten)
|Birth name||Bessie Smith|
|Also known as||The Empress of the Blues|
|Born||April 15, 1894|
Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S.
|Died||September 26, 1937(aged 43)|
Clarksdale, Mississippi, U.S.,
Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer. Nicknamed the Empress of the Blues, she 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 was a major influence on other jazz singers.
The 1900 census indicates that Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July 1892, a date provided by her mother. The 1910 census gave her age as 16. A birth date of April 15, 1894, appears on subsequent documents and was observed as her birthday by the Smith family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but later interviews with Smith's family and contemporaries did not mention them among her siblings.
She was the daughter of Laura (born Owens) and William Smith, a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a "minister of the gospel", in Moulton, Lawrence County, Alabama). He died while his daughter was too young to remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, her mother and a brother had also died. Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings.
To earn money for their impoverished household, Smith and her brother Andrew began busking on the streets of Chattanooga; she sang and danced, and he accompanied her on the 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, 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 and arranged an audition for his sister with the managers of the troupe, Lonnie and Cora Fisher. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company already included the well-known singer Ma Rainey. Smith eventually moved on to performing in various chorus lines, making the "81" Theater in Atlanta her home base. She also performed in shows on the black-owned (Theater Owners Booking Association) (T.O.B.A.) circuit and became its biggest star after she signed a recording contract with Columbia Records.
Smith's recording career began in 1923. She was then living in Philadelphia, where she met Jack Gee, a security guard, whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was being released. During the marriage 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 custom-built railroad car. Their marriage was stormy with infidelity on both sides, including numerous female lovers for Bessie 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, Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.
Smith later entered a common-law marriage with an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton's uncle. 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, she had established a reputation in the South and along the East Coast.
In 1920, sales of over 100,000 copies of "Crazy Blues," recorded for Okeh Records by the singer Mamie Smith(no relation), pointed to a new market. The recording industry had not directed its product to black people, 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 on February 15, 1923. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia's regular A-series. When the company established a "race records" series, Smith's "Cemetery Blues" (September 26, 1923) was the first issued.
Both sides of her first record, "Downhearted Blues" backed with "Gulf Coast Blues", were hits (an earlier recording of "Downhearted Blues" by its co-writer Alberta Hunter had previously been released by Paramount Records). Smith became a headliner on the T.O.B.A. circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter and performing in tent shows 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 the press soon upgraded her title to "Empress of the Blues".
Smith had a strong contralto voice, which recorded well from her first session, which was conducted when recordings were made acoustically. With the advent of electrical recording (her first electrical recording was "Cake Walking Babies [From Home]", recorded on 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 in the segregated South. For example, after giving a concert for a white-only audience at a theater in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 1923, she then performed a late-night concert on station WMC, which was well received by the radio audience.
She made 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, notably Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, and Charlie Green.
On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car crash while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving and misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Tire marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith's old Packard. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.
The first people on the scene were a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation), and his fishing partner, Henry Broughton. In the early 1970s, Hugh Smith gave a detailed account of his experience to Bessie's biographer Chris Albertson. This is the most reliable eyewitness testimony about the events surrounding her death.
After stopping at the accident scene, Hugh Smith examined the singer, who was lying in the middle of the road with obviously severe injuries. He estimated she had lost about a half pint of blood and immediately noted a major traumatic injury to her right arm; it had been almost completely severed at the elbow. He stated that this injury alone did not cause her death. Although the light was poor, he observed only minor head injuries. He attributed her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a sideswipe collision.
Broughton and Smith moved the singer to the shoulder of the road. Smith dressed her arm injury with a clean handkerchief and asked Broughton to go to a house about 500 feet off the road to call an ambulance.
By the time Broughton returned, about 25 minutes later, Bessie Smith was in shock. Time passed with no sign of the ambulance, so Hugh Smith suggested that they take her into Clarksdale in his car. He and Broughton had almost finished clearing the back seat when they heard the sound of a car approaching at high speed. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the oncoming car failed to stop and plowed into his car at full speed. It sent his car careening into Bessie Smith's overturned Packard, completely wrecking it. The oncoming car ricocheted off Hugh Smith's car into the ditch on the right, barely missing Broughton and Bessie Smith.
The young couple in the new car did not have life-threatening injuries. Two ambulances arrived on the scene from Clarksdale, one from the black hospital, summoned by Broughton, the other from the white hospital, acting on a report from the truck driver, who had not seen the accident victims.
Bessie Smith was taken to Clarksdale's G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After her death, an often repeated but now discredited story emerged that she had died as a result of having been refused admission to a whites-only hospital in Clarksdale. The jazz writer and producer John Hammond gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine. The circumstances of Smith's death and the rumor promoted by Hammond formed the basis for Edward Albee's 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith.
"The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital, you can forget that," Hugh Smith told Albertson. "Down in the Deep South cotton country, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks."
Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia a little over a week later, on October 4, 1937. Her body was originally laid out at Upshur's funeral home. As word of her death spread through Philadelphia's black community, the body had to be moved to the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday, October 3. Contemporary newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearby Sharon Hill. Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.
Smith's grave was unmarked until a tombstone was erected on August 7, 1970, paid for by the singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith.
Dory Previn wrote a song about Joplin and the tombstone, "Stone for Bessie Smith", on her album Mythical Kings and Iguanas.