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Contemporary Black Biography Encyclopedia of World BiographyUXL Encyclopedia of World BiographyThe Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Further reading

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Smith, Bessie 1894–1937

Bessie Smith 18941937

Blues singer

At a Glance

Zealous Fans Created Mob Scenes

Lived and Sang the Blues

Selected discography

Sources

They called her the Empress of the Blues. Born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith began singing for money on street corners and eventually rose to become the largest-selling recording artist of her day. So mesmerizing was her vocal stylereinforced by her underrated acting and comedic skillsthat nearriots frequently erupted when she appeared. Those outside the theaters clamored to get in; those inside refused to leave without hearing more of Smith. Twice she was instrumental in helping save Columbia Records from bankruptcy.

One of the numerous myths about Smith is that she was tutored (some versions claim kidnapped) by Ma Rainey, the prototype blues singer, and forced to tour with Raineys show. In fact, Rainey didnt have her own show until after 1916, long after Smith had achieved independent success in a variety of minstrel and tent shows. Rainey and Smith did work together, however, and had established a friendship as early as 1912. No doubt Smith absorbed vocal ideas during her early association with the Mother of the Blues.

Originally hired as a dancer, Smith rapidly polished her skills as a singer and often combined the two, weaving in a natural flair for comedy. From the beginning, communication with her audience was the hallmark of the young singer. Her voice was remarkable, filling the largest hall without amplification and reaching out to each listener in beautiful, earthy tones. In Jazz People, Dan Morgenstern quoted guitarist Danny Barker as saying: Bessie Smith was a fabulous deal to watch. She was a large, pretty woman and she dominated the stage. You didnt turn your head when she went on. You just watched Bessie. If you had any church background like people who came from the [U.S.] South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people. She could bring about mass hypnotism.

When Mamie Smith (no relation to Bessie Smith) recorded the first vocal blues in 1920 and sold 100,000 copies in the first month, record executives discovered a new market and the race record was born. Shipped only to the South and selected areas of the North where blacks congregated, these recordings of black performers found an eager audience, a surprising segment of which was made up of

At a Glance

Born April 15,1894, in Chattanooga, TN; died in an automobile accident in Clarksdale, MS, September 26, 1937; daughter of William (a part-time Baptist preacher) and Laura Smith;married Earl Love, c. 1918 (deceased); married Jack Gee (a night watchman and part-time manager), June 7, 1923;children:Jack Gee, Jr(adopted in 1926). Religion: Baptist.

Blues singer, dancer, and comedian as a member of various performing groups and as a solo act, 1912-37; recording artist for Columbia Records, 1923-33.

white Southerners to whose ears the sounds of the blues were quite natural. Smiths first effective recording date, February 16, 1923, produced Down-Hearted Blues and Gulf Coast Blues and featured piano accompaniment by Clarence Williams. The public bought an astounding 780,000 copies within six months.

Smiths contract paid her $125 per viable recording, with no provision for royalties. Frank Walker, who supervised all of Smiths recordings with Columbia through 1931, quickly negotiated new contracts calling first for 12 new recordings at $150 each, then 12 more at $200, and Smithss fabulous recording career of 160 titles was successfully launched. On the brink of receivership in 1923, Columbia recovered largely through the sale of recordings by Eddie Cantor, Ted Lewis, Bert Williams, and its hottest selling artist, Bessie Smith. With her earnings, Smith was able to purchase a custom-designed railroad car for herself and her troupe in 1925. This luxury allowed her to circumvent some of the dispiriting effects of the racism found in both northern and southern states as she traveled with her own tent show or with the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) shows, commanding a weekly salary that peaked at $2,000.

Smith recorded with a variety of accompanists during her ten-year recording career, including some of the most famous names in jazz as well as some of the most obscure. Among the elite were pianists Fred Longshaw, Porter Grainger, and Fletcher Henderson; saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet; trombonist Charlie Green; clarinetists Buster Bailey and Don Redman; and cornetist Joe Smith. Perhaps her most empathetic backing came from Green and Smith, examples of which may be found on such songs as The Yellow Dog Blues, Empty Bed Blues, Trombone Cholly, Lost Your Head Blues, and Young Womans Blues. Smith and Louis Armstrongs first collaborations1925s brilliant St. Louis Blues and Cold in Hand Bluesmarked the end of the acoustic recording era, with Smiths first electrically recorded sides occurring on May 6, 1925. Other standouts with Armstrong include Careless Love Blues, Nashville Womans Blues, and I Aint Gonna Play No Second Fiddle. Piano giant James P. Johnsons accompaniment sparkled on 1927s Preachin the Blues and Back Water Blues as well as on 1929s Hes Got Me Goin, Worn Out Papa Blues, and You Dont Understand.

Zealous Fans Created Mob Scenes

Feeding on the popularity of her records, Smiths tour date schedule escalated. As she traveled from her home base of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Georgia, and New York City, adoring crowds greeted her at each stop. Extra police became the norm for controlling crowd enthusiasm. What was the attraction? Critic and promoter John Hammond wrote in 1937: Bessie Smith was the greatest artist American jazz ever produced; in fact, Im not sure that her art did not reach beyond the limits of the term jazz. She was one of those rare beings, a completely integrated artist capable of projecting her whole personality into music. She was blessed not only with great emotion but with a tremendous voice that could penetrate the inner recesses of the listener.

In Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller listed the components of Smiths vocal style: a remarkable ear for and control of intonation in all its subtlest functions; a perfectly centered, naturally produced voice (in her prime); an extreme sensitivity to word meaning and the sensory, almost physical, feeling of a word; and, related to this, superb diction and what singers call projection. She was certainly the first singer on jazz records to value diction, not for itself, but as a vehicle for conveying emotional states. Perhaps even more remarkable was her pitch control. She handled this with such ease and naturalness that one is apt to take it for granted. Bessies fine microtonal shadings are all part of a personal, masterful technique of great subtlety, despite the frequently boisterous mood or language. Schuller further heralded Smith as the first complete jazz singer whose influence on Billie Holiday and a whole generation of jazz singers cannot be overestimated.

Lived and Sang the Blues

In spite of her commercial success, Smiths personal life never strayed far from the blues theme. Her marriage to Jack Gee was stormy, punctuated by frequent fights and breakups despite their adoption of a son, Jack Gee, Jr., in 1926. Their nuptials ended in a bitter separation in 1929; Gee then attempted to keep the boy from Smith for years by moving him from one boarding home to another. Smith also battled liquor. Though able to abstain from drinking for considerable periods, she often indulged in binges that were infamous among her troupe and family. Equally well known to her intimates was Smiths bisexual promiscuity.

Smiths popularity as a recording artist crested around 1929, when the three-pronged fork of radio, talking pictures, and the Great Depression pitched the entire recording industry onto the critical list. Though her personal appearances continued at a brisk pace, the price she could demand dipped; she was forced to sell her beloved railroad car, and the smaller towns she played housed theaters in which general quality and facilities were a burden. Even so she starred in a 1929 two-reel film, St. Louis Blues, a semi-autobiographical effort that received some exposure through 1932.

Smiths only appearance on New Yorks famed 52nd Street came on a cold Sunday afternoon in February of 1936 at the Famous Door, where she was backed by Bunny Berigan, Joe Bushkin, and other regulars of the house band. The impact of her singing that day has remained with those present for more than half a century. Much was made of the fact that Mildred Bailey wisely refused to follow Smiths performance. Furthermore, that single afternoons performance gave rise to other possible Smith appearances with popular swing performers: John Hammond claimed a 1937 recording date teaming Smith and members of the Count Basie band was in the works, Lionel Hampton recalled Goodmans eagerness to record with Smith, and another film was planned. Smiths lean years were ending as the summer of 1937 approached. The recording industrys revival soared on the craziness of the early Swing Era, spearheaded by the success of Benny Goodmans band. Smith had proven adaptable in her repertoire and could certainly swing with the best of them; moreover, blues singing was experiencing a revival in popular taste. Even Smiths personal life was on the upswing with the steady and loving influence of her companion, Richard Morgan.

On the morning of September 26, 1937, Smith and Morgan were driving from a Memphis performance to Darling, Mississippi, for the next days show. Near Clarksdale, Mississippi, their car was involved in an accident fatal to Smith. A persistent rumor later developed that Smith bled to death because a white hospital refused to admit her. The myth originated in a 1937 Down Beat story written by John Hammond and was perpetuated by Edward Albees 1960 play, The Death of Bessie Smith. Thirty-five years after Smiths death, author Chris Albertson finally dispelled the rumor. Albertson won a Grammy award for his booklet that accompanied the 1970 Columbia reissue of Smiths complete worksColumbias second major reissue project. His deeper investigations resulted in the acclaimed 1972 biography, Bessie.

Albertson described Smiths funeral: On Monday, October 4, 1937, Philadelphia witnessed one of the most spectacular funerals in its history. Bessie Smith, a black super-star of the previous decadea has been, fatally injured on a dark Mississippi road eight days earlierwas given a send-off befitting the star she had never really ceased to be. When word of her death reached the black community, the body had to be moved [to another location] which more readily accommodated the estimated ten thousand admirers who filed past her bier on Sunday, October 3. The crowd outside was now seven thousand strong, and policemen were having a hard time holding it back. To those who had known Bessie in her better days, the sight was familiar.

Selected discography

On Columbia

The following Columbia LP reissues represent the entire published output of Bessie Smith. The notes in the accompanying booklet were written by Smiths biographer, Chris Albertson. Many of the records used in this remastering process were borrowed from the Yale University collection donated by Carl Van Vechten and from the private collection of Robert Fertig.

The Worlds Greatest Blues Singer, Columbia GP 33, 1970.

Any Womans Blues, Columbia G 30126, 1970.

Empty Bed Blues, Columbia G 30450, 1971.

The Empress, Columbia G 30818, 1971.

Nobodys Blues But Mine, Columbia, G 31093, 1971.

Other

Bessie Smith: 1925-1933 (includes The Yellow Dog Blues, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Nobody Knows You When Youre Down and Out), Hermes, 1992.

Sources

Books

Albertson, Chris, Bessie, Stein and Day, 1972.

Brooks, Edward, The Bessie Smith Companion, Da Capo, 1983.

Donaldson, Norman, and Betty Donaldson, How Did They Die?, St. Martins Press, 1980.

Kinkle, Roger D., The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz 1900-1950, Volume 3, Arlington House, 1974.

Morgenstern, Dan, Jazz People, Harry N. Abrams, 1976.

Rust, Brian, Jazz Records 1897-1942, Volume 2, 5th revised and enlarged edition, Storyville Publications, 1982.

Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Shapiro, Nat, and Nat Hentoff, editors, The Jazz Makers (Bessie Smith chapter by George Hoefer), Rinehart & Co.,1957.

Terkel, Studs, and Millie Hawk Daniel, Giants of Jazz, revised edition, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.

Periodicals

Esquire, June 1969.

High Fidelity, October 1970; May 1975.

National Review, July 1,1961.

Newsweek, February 1, 1971; January 22, 1973.

Saturday Review, December 29, 1951; February 26, 1972.

Robert Dupuis

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Dupuis, Robert. "Smith, Bessie 1894–1937." Contemporary Black Biography. 1993. Encyclopedia.com. 28 Jun. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Dupuis, Robert. "Smith, Bessie 1894–1937." Contemporary Black Biography. 1993. Retrieved June 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870500070.html

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith (ca. 1894-1937) was called "The Empress of the Blues." Her magnificent voice, sense of the dramatic, clarity of diction (you never missed a word of what she sang) and incomparable time and phrasing set her apart from the competition and made her appeal as much to jazz lovers as to lovers of the blues.

Born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith began singing for money on street corners and eventually rose to become the largest-selling recording artist of her day. So mesmerizing was her vocal style—reinforced by her underrated acting and comedic skills—that near-riots frequently errupted when she appeared. Those outside the theaters clamored to get in; those inside refused to leave without hearing more of Smith. Twice she was instrumental in helping save Columbia Records from bankruptcy.

One of the numerous myths about Smith is that she was tutored (some versions claim kidnapped) by Ma Rainey, the prototype blues singer, and forced to tour with Rainey's show. In fact, Rainey didn't have her own show until after 1916, long after Smith had achieved independent success in a variety of minstrel and tent shows. Rainey and Smith did work together, however, and had established a friendship as early as 1912. No doubt Smith absorbed vocal ideas during her early association with the "Mother of the Blues."

Originally hired as a dancer, Smith rapidly polished her skills as a singer and often combined the two, weaving in a natural flair for comedy. From the beginning, communication with her audience was the hallmark of the young singer. Her voice was remarkable, filling the largest hall without amplification and reaching out to each listener in beautiful, earthy tones. In Jazz People, Dan Morgenstern quoted guitarist Danny Barker as saying: "Bessie Smith was a fabulous deal to watch. She was a large, pretty woman and she dominated the stage. You didn't turn your head when she went on. You just watched Bessie. If you had any church background like people who came from the [U.S.] South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people. She could bring about mass hypnotism."

When Mamie Smith (no relation to Bessie Smith) recorded the first vocal blues in 1920 and sold 100,000 copies in the first month, record executives discovered a new market and the "race record" was born. Shipped only to the South and selected areas of the North where blacks congregated, these recordings of black performers found an eager audience, a surprising segment of which was made up of white Southerners to whose ears the sounds of the blues were quite natural. Smith's first effective recording date, February 16, 1923, produced "Down-Hearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues" and featured piano accompaniment by Clarence Williams. The public bought an astounding 780,000 copies within six months.

Recorded With the Jazz Elite

Smith's contract paid her $125 per viable recording, with no provision for royalties. Frank Walker, who supervised all of Smith's recordings with Columbia through 1931, quickly negotiated new contracts calling first for 12 new recordings at $150 each, then 12 more at $200, and Smiths's fabulous recording career of 160 titles was successfully launched. On the brink of receivership in 1923, Columbia recovered largely through the sale of recordings by Eddie Cantor, Ted Lewis, Bert Williams, and its hottest selling artist, Bessie Smith. With her earnings, Smith was able to purchase a custom-designed railroad car for herself and her troupe in 1925. This luxury allowed her to circumvent some of the dispiriting effects of the racism found in both northern and southern states as she traveled with her own tent show or with the Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA) shows, commanding a weekly salary that peaked at $2,000.

Smith recorded with a variety of accompanists during her ten-year recording career, including some of the most famous names in jazz as well as some of the most obscure. Among the elite were pianists Fred Longshaw, Porter Grainger, and Fletcher Henderson; saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet; trombonist Charlie Green; clarinetists Buster Bailey and Don Redman; and cornetist Joe Smith. Perhaps her most empathetic backing came from Green and Smith, examples of which may be found on such songs as "The Yellow Dog Blues," "Empty Bed Blues," "Trombone Cholly," "Lost Your Head Blues," and "Young Woman's Blues." Smith and Louis Armstrong's first collaborations—1925's brilliant "St. Louis Blues" and "Cold in Hand Blues"—marked the end of the acoustic recording era, with Smith's first electrically recorded sides occuring on May 6, 1925. Other standouts with Armstrong include "Careless Love Blues," "Nashville Woman's Blues," and "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle." Piano giant James P. Johnson's accompaniment sparkled on 1927's "Preachin' the Blues" and "Back Water Blues" as well as on 1929's "He's Got Me Goin'," "Worn Out Papa Blues," and "You Don't Understand."

Zealous Fans Created Mob Scenes

Feeding on the popularity of her records, Smith's tour date schedule escalated. As she traveled from her home base of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Georgia, and New York City, adoring crowds greeted her at each stop. Extra police became the norm for controling crowd enthusiasm. What was the attraction? Critic and promoter John Hammond wrote in 1937: "Bessie Smith was the greatest artist American jazz ever produced; in fact, I'm not sure that her art did not reach beyond the limits of the term 'jazz.' She was one of those rare beings, a completely integrated artist capable of projecting her whole personality into music. She was blessed not only with great emotion but with a tremendous voice that could penetrate the inner recesses of the listener."

In Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller listed the components of Smith's vocal style: "a remarkable ear for and control of intonation in all its subtlest functions; a perfectly centered, naturally produced voice (in her prime); an extreme sensitivity to word meaning and the sensory, almost physical, feeling of a word; and, related to this, superb diction and what singers call projection. She was certainly the first singer on jazz records to value diction, not for itself, but as a vehicle for conveying emotional states…. Perhaps even more remarkable was her pitch control. She handled this with such ease and naturalness that one is apt to take it for granted. Bessie's fine microtonal shadings … are all part of a personal, masterful technique of great subtlety, despite the frequently boisterous mood or language." Schuller further heralded Smith as "the first complete jazz singer" whose influence on Billie Holiday and a whole generation of jazz singers cannot be overestimated.

Lived and Sang the Blues

In spite of her commercial success, Smith's personal life never strayed far from the blues theme. Her marriage to Jack Gee was stormy, punctuated by frequent fights and breakups despite their adoption of a son, Jack Gee, Jr., in 1926. Their nuptials ended in a bitter separation in 1929; Gee then attempted to keep the boy from Smith for years by moving him from one boarding home to another. Smith also battled liquor. Though able to abstain from drinking for considerable periods, Smith often indulged in binges that were infamous among her troupe and family. Equally well known to her intimates was Smith's bisexual promiscuity.

Smith's popularity as a recording artist crested around 1929, when the three-pronged fork of radio, talking pictures, and the Great Depression pitched the entire recording industry onto the critical list. Though her personal appearances continued at a brisk pace, the price she could demand dipped; she was forced to sell her beloved railroad car, and the smaller towns she played housed theaters in which general quality and facilities were a burden. Even so she starred in a 1929 two-reel film, St. Louis Blues, a semi-autobiographical effort that received some exposure through 1932.

Smith's only appearance on New York's famed 52nd Street came on a cold Sunday afternoon in February of 1936 at the Famous Door, where she was backed by Bunny Berigan, Joe Bushkin, and other regulars of the house band. The impact of her singing that day has remained with those present for more than half a century. Much was made of the fact that Mildred Bailey wisely refused to follow Smith's performance. Furthermore, that single afternoon's performance gave rise to other possible Smith appearances with popular swing performers: John Hammond claimed a 1937 recording date teaming Smith and members of the Count Basie band was in the works, Lionel Hampton recalled Goodman's eagerness to record with Smith, and another film was planned. Smith's lean years were ending as the summer of 1937 approached. The recording industry's revival soared on the craziness of the early Swing Era, spear-headed by the success of Benny Goodman's band. Smith had proven adaptable in her repertoire and could certainly swing with the best of them; moreover, blues singing was experiencing a revival in popular taste. Even Smith's personal life was on the upswing with the steady and loving influence of her companion, Richard Morgan.

On the morning of September 26, 1937, Smith and Morgan were driving from a Memphis performance to Darling, Mississippi, for the next day's show. Near Clarksdale, Mississippi, their car was involved in an accident fatal to Smith. A persistent rumor later developed that Smith bled to death because a white hospital refused to admit her. The myth originated in a 1937 Down Beat story written by John Hammond and was perpetuated by Edward Albee's 1960 play, The Death of Bessie Smith. Thirty-five years after Smith's death, author Chris Albertson finally dispelled the rumor. Albertson won a Grammy award for his booklet that accompanied the 1970 Columbia reissue of Smith's complete works—Columbia's second major reissue project. His deeper investigations resulted in the acclaimed 1972 biography, Bessie.

Albertson described Smith's funeral: "On Monday, October 4, 1937, Philadelphia witnessed one of the most spectacular funerals in its history. Bessie Smith, a black superstar of the previous decade—a 'has been,' fatally injured on a dark Mississippi road eight days earlier—was given a send-off befitting the star she had never really ceased to be…. When word of her death reached the black community, the body had to be moved [to another location] which more readily accommodated the estimated ten thousand admirers who filed past her bier on Sunday, October 3…. The crowd outside was now seven thousand strong, and policemen were having a hard time holding it back. To those who had known Bessie in her better days, the sight was familiar."

Further Reading

Albertson, Chris, Bessie, Stein and Day, 1972.

Brooks, Edward, The Bessie Smith Companion, Da Capo, 1983.

Donaldson, Norman, and Betty Donaldson, How Did They Die?, St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Kinkle, Roger D., The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz 1900-1950, Volume 3, Arlington House, 1974.

Morgenstern, Dan, Jazz People, Harry N. Abrams, 1976.

Rust, Brian, Jazz Records 1891-1942, Volume 2, 5th revised and enlarged edition, Storyville Publications, 1982.

Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Shapiro, Nat, and Nat Hentoff, editors, The Jazz Makers (Bessie Smith chapter by George Hoefer), Rinehart and Co., 1957.

Terkel, Studs, and Millie Hawk Daniel, Giants of Jazz, revised edition, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.

Esquire, June 1969.

High Fidelity, October 1970; May 1975.

National Review, July 1, 1961.

Newsweek, February 1, 1971; January 22, 1973.

Saturday Review, December 29, 1951; February 26, 1972. □

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"Bessie Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 28 Jun. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Smith, Bessie

Bessie Smith

Born: April 15, 1894
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Died: September 26, 1937
Clarksdale, Mississippi

African American singer

The African American singer Bessie Smith was called "The Empress of the Blues." Her magnificent voice, sense of the dramatic, clarity of diction (one never missed a word of what she sang), and incomparable time and phrasing set her apart from the competition and made her appeal as much to jazz lovers as to blues lovers.

Early years

Bessie Smith was born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of seven children of William and Laura Smith. Her father was a Baptist minister and a laborer. Her father died soon after her birth and her mother and two of her brothers died by the time she was eight or nine. An unmarried aunt raised her and her siblings. Smith realized that she had an unusual voice and sang for money on street corners at an early age, accompanied on guitar by Andrew, her younger brother.

At age eighteen Bessie worked with the Moses Stokes traveling minstrel show, and later with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels under Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. The minstrel show (a show based on African American music and humor) circuit was a difficult life. Late hours, low pay, gambling, fighting, and abusing alcohol and drugs were commonplace. But Smith's voice was remarkable, filling the largest hall without amplification (the expansion of sound) and reaching out to each listener in beautiful, earthy tones.

In 1920 Mamie Smith (no relation to Bessie Smith) recorded the first vocal blues record and sold one hundred thousand copies in the first month. Record executives realized they had a new market and the "race record" was born. These records were shipped only to the South and selected areas of the North where African American people congregated. Bessie Smith produced "Down-Hearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues" in February 1923. An astounding 780 thousand copies sold within six months.

Recorded with the jazz elite

In 1923 Smith's big break came when she was discovered by Columbia Records. Frank Walker handled her recording contract from 1923 through 1931 and helped launch her successful career of 160 titles.

Smith purchased a custom-designed railroad car for herself and her troupe in 1925. This allowed her to bypass some of the dispiriting (negative) effects of the racism found in both northern and southern states. She traveled with her own tent show or with the Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA) shows, commanding a weekly salary that peaked at two thousand dollars.

Smith recorded with a variety of accompanists during her ten-year recording career. They included pianists Fred Longshaw, Porter Grainger, and Fletcher Henderson; saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet; trombonist Charlie Green; clarinetists Buster Bailey and Don Redman; and cornetist Joe Smith. With Louis Armstrong (19001971) she recorded "St. Louis Blues," "Cold in Hand Blues," "Careless Love Blues," "Nashville Woman's Blues," and "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle."

Singing the blues

As the popularity of Smith's records grew, her touring schedule grew. As she traveled from her home base of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, throughout the United States, adoring crowds greeted her at each stop. In spite of Smith's commercial success, her personal life was very similar to the blues she sang. Her marriage to Jack Gee was stormy and ended in a bitter separation in 1929. Smith was also struggling to battle liquor.

Smith's popularity as a recording artist crested around 1929. Then the combination of radio, talking pictures, and the Great Depression (192939; a period of severe economic downfall resulting in the loss of jobs for millions) undermined the entire recording industry. The price she could demand dipped and she was forced to sell her railroad car. The smaller towns she played housed theaters of lesser quality. Even so she starred in a 1929 two-reel film, St. Louis Blues, a semiautobiographical effort that received some exposure through 1932.

Smith's lean years ended in 1937, as the recording industry again soared on the craziness of the early Swing Era, spearheaded by the success of Benny Goodman's (19091986) band. Smith had proven adaptable throughout her career and could certainly swing with the best of them. Also, blues singing was experiencing a revival in popular taste.

Tragedy

On the morning of September 26, 1937, Smith and her close friend Richard Morgan were driving from a Memphis performance to Darling, Mississippi, for the next day's show. Near Clarksdale, Mississippi, their car was involved in an accident resulting in Bessie Smith's death.

It was estimated that over ten thousand adoring fans attended the funeral of the blues singer who had become the largest-selling recording artist of her day. In Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller heralded Smith as "the first complete jazz singer" whose influence on the legendary Billie Holiday (19151959) and a whole generation of jazz singers cannot be overestimated.

For More Information

Albertson, Chris. Bessie. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.

Brooks, Edward. The Bessie Smith Companion. New York: Da Capo, 1983.

Davis, Angela Yvonne. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon, 1998.

Feinstein, Elaine. Bessie Smith. New York: Viking, 1985.

Kay, Jackie. Bessie Smith. New York: Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, 1997.

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Smith, Bessie

Bessie Smith, 1894–1937, American singer, b. Chattanooga, Tenn. About 1910 Smith became the protégée of Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, one of the earliest blues singers. After working in traveling shows she went to New York City, where she made (1923–28) recordings, accompanied by such outstanding artists as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and James P. Johnson. She quickly became the favorite singer of the jazz public. The power and somber beauty of her voice, coupled with songs representing every variety of the blues, earned her the title "Empress of the Blues." Around 1928, changing popular taste and her growing alcoholism led to a decline in her popularity. Though she continued to tour, her last years were embittered. She died after an automobile accident while on tour in Mississippi, the circumstances of which are discussed in Edward Albee's play The Death of Bessie Smith (1960). Numerous critics regarded her as the greatest of all jazz artists, and her fame increased enormously after her death.

See biography by C. Albertson (rev. ed. 2003).

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Smith, Bessie

Smith, Bessie (1895–1937) US singer, known as the ‘Empress of the Blues’. In 1923, Smith made her recording début and sold more than two million records. Her powerful voice and poignant phrasing accompanied early jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong. Her popularity plummeted during the Depression. She died after being refused treatment at a whites-only hospital following a serious car accident.

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Smith, Bessie

Bessie Smith

Singer

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

They called her the Empress of the Blues. Born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith began singing for coins on street corners and rose to become the largest-selling recording artist of her day. So mesmerizing was her vocal style in person, reinforced as it was by her underacclaimed acting and comedie skills, near-riots frequently broke out when she appeared. Those outside the theaters clamored to get in; those inside refused to leave without hearing more of their Bessie. At two critical points, she was instrumental in helping to save Columbia Records from bankruptcy. While at her peak, in 1925, Smith bought a custom-designed railroad car for herself and her troupe on which they could travel and live. This luxury allowed her to circumvent some of the dispiriting effects of the racism found in both Northern and Southern states as she traveled with her own tent show or with the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) shows throughout much of the country, commanding a weekly salary that peaked at $2,000.

One of the many myths about Bessie is that she was tutored (some versions claim kidnapped) by Ma Rainey, the prototype blues singer, and forced to tour with Raineys show. In fact, Rainey didnt have her own show until after 1916, long after Bessie had achieved independent success through her apprenticeships in a variety of minstrel and tent shows. Rainey and Smith worked together and established a friendship as early as 1912, and no doubt Smith absorbed vocal ideas during her early association with the Mother of the Blues. Originally hired as a dancer, Bessie rapidly polished her skills as a singer and often combined the two, weaving in a natural flair for comedy. From the beginning, communication with her audience was a hallmark of the young singer. Her voice was remarkable. Able to fill the largest hall without amplification, it reached out to each listener with its earthiness and beauty. In Jazz People, Dan Morgenstern quotes guitarist Danny Barker: Bessie Smith was a fabulous deal to watch. She was a large, pretty woman and she dominated the stage. You didnt turn your head when she went on. You just watched Bessie. If you had any church background like people who came from the South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people. She could bring about mass hypnotism.

When Mamie Smith (no relation) recorded the first vocal blues in 1920 and sold 100, 000 copies in the first month, record executives discovered a new market and the race record was born. Shipped only to the South and selected areas of the North where blacks congregated, these recordings of black performers found an eager audience, a surprising segment of

For the Record

Born April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, Tennessee; died in an automobile accident in Clarksdale, Mississippi, September 26, 1937; daughter of William (a part-time Baptist preacher) and Laura Smith; married Earl Love, c 1918 (died); married Jack Gee (a night watchman and part-time manager), June 7, 1923; children: Jack Gee, Jr. (adopted 1926). Religion: Baptist.

Blues singer, dancer, and comedian in various performing groups and solo, 1912-1937; recording artist for Columbia Records, 1923-1933.

Addresses: Record company Columbia Records, 51 W. 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019.

which was made up of white Southerners to whose ears the sounds of the blues were quite natural. Bessies first effective recording date, February 16, 1923, produced Down-Hearted Blues and Gulf Coast Blues, with piano accompaniment by Clarence Williams. The public bought an astounding 780, 000 copies within six months. Bessies contract paid her $125 per usable recording, with no provision for royalties. Frank Walker, who supervised all of Bessies recordings with Columbia through 1931, quickly negotiated new contracts calling first for twelve new recordings at $150 each, then twelve more at $200and Bessies fabulous recording career of 160 titles was successfully launched. On the brink of receivership in 1923, Columbia recovered largely through the sale of recordings by Eddie Cantor, Ted Lewis, Bert Williams, and its hottest-selling artist, Bessie Smith.

During her ten-year recording career, the first six of which produced most of her output, Bessie recorded with a variety of accompanists, including some of the most famous names in jazz as well as some of the most obscure. Among the elite were pianists Fred Longshaw, Porter Grainger, and Fletcher Henderson; saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet; trombonist Charlie Green; clarinetists Buster Bailey and Don Redman; and cornetist Joe Smith. Perhaps her most empathetic backing came from Green and Smith, as well as from Louis Armstrong and piano giant James P. Johnson. Examples of the support given her by Green and Smith may be found on such songs as The Yellow Dog Blues, Empty Bed Blues, Trombone Cholly, Lost Your Head Blues, and Young Womans Blues. When Bessie and Louis Armstrong first teamed up for 1925s brilliant St. Louis Blues and Cold In Hand Blues it marked the end of the acoustic recording era, with Bessies first electrically recorded sides coming on May 6, 1925. Other standouts with Armstrong include Careless Love Blues, Nashville Womans Blues, and I Aint Gonna Play No Second Fiddle. Johnsons accompaniment sparkles on 1927s Preachin the Blues and Back Water Blues, as well as a number of 1929 efforts, Hes Got Me Goin, Worn Out Papa Blues, and You Dont Understand.

Feeding on the popularity of her records, Bessies personal-appearance schedule escalated. As she moved from her home base of Philadelphia to Detroit, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, and New York, adoring crowds greeted her at each stop. Extra police details to control the enthusiasm became the norm. What was the attraction? Critic and promoter John Hammond wrote in 1937: . . . Bessie Smith was the greatest artist American jazz ever produced; in fact, Im not sure that her art did not reach beyond the limits of the term jazz. She was one of those rare beings, a completely integrated artist capable of projecting her whole personality into music. She was blessed not only with great emotion but with a tremendous voice that could penetrate the inner recesses of the listener. In Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller listed the components of Bessies vocal style: a remarkable ear for and control of intonation, in all its subtlest functions; a perfectly centered, naturally produced voice (in her prime); an extreme sensitivity to word meaning and the sensory, almost physical, feeling of a word; and, related to this, superb diction and what singers call projection. She was certainly the first singer on jazz records to value diction, not for itself, but as a vehicle for conveying emotional states. Perhaps even more remarkable was her pitch control. She handled this with such ease and naturalness that one is apt to take it for granted. Bessies fine microtonal shadings are all part of a personal, masterful technique of great subtlety, despite the frequently boisterous mood or language. Further, Schuller heralds Bessie as the first complete jazz singer, whose influence on Billie Holiday and a whole generation of jazz singers cannot be overestimated.

In spite of her commercial success, Bessies personal life never strayed far from the blues theme. Her marriage to Jack Gee was stormy, punctuated by frequent fights and breakups, and, despite the 1926 adoption of Jack Gee, Jr., it ended in a bitter separation in 1929, after which Gee contrived to keep the boy from Bessie for years by moving him from one boarding home to another. Another battle Bessie waged was with the liquor bottle. Though able to abstain from drinking for considerable periods, Bessie often indulged in binges that were infamous among her troupe and family. Equally well known to her intimates was Bessies bisexual promiscuity.

Bessie rode the crest of recorded popularity until about 1929, when the three-pronged fork of radio, talking pictures, and the Great Depression pitched the entire recording industry onto the critical list. Though her personal-appearance schedule continued at a brisk pace, the prices she could demand dipped, she was forced to sell her beloved railroad car, and the smaller towns she played housed theaters whose general quality and facilities were a burden. Even so, she starred in a 1929 two-reel film, St. Louis Blues, a near-autobiographical effort that received some exposure until 1932.

Bessies lean years were coming to an end in the summer of 1937. The recording industrys revival soared on the craziness of the early Swing Era, spearheaded by the success of the Benny Goodman band. Bessie had proved adaptable in her repertoire and could certainly swing with the best of them; even better, blues singing was experiencing a revival in popular taste. Bessies only appearance on New Yorks famed Fifty-second Street came on a cold February Sunday afternoon in 1936 at the Famous Door, when she was backed by Bunny Berigan, Joe Bushkin, and other regulars of the Door band. The impact of her singing that day has remained with those present for more than half a century. Much was made of the fact that Mildred Bailey wisely refused to follow Bessies performance. Further, that one afternoons singing gave rise to other possible Smith appearances with popular swing performers: John Hammond claimed a 1937 record date teaming Bessie and members of the Basie band was in the works; Lionel Hampton recalled Goodmans eagerness to record with Bessie. Another film was planned. Even Bessies personal life was on the upswing in 1937 with the steady and loving influence of companion Richard Morgan.

Early in the morning of September 26, 1937, Bessie and Morgan were driving from a Memphis performance to Darling, Mississippi, for the next days show. Near Clarksdale, Mississippi, their car was involved in an accident that was fatal to Bessie. One of the persistent myths about Bessie is that she bled to death because a white hospital refused to admit her. This story was given impetus by the unfortunate 1937 down beat story by John Hammond, and was perpetuated by Edward Albees 1960 play, The Death of Bessie Smith. Author Chris Albertson puts this myth firmly to rest. Albertson won a Grammy award for his booklet that accompanied the 1970 Columbia reissue of Bessies complete works (their second major reissue project). He was spurred to deeper investigation, resulting in his acclaimed 1972 biography, Bessie.

Albertson describes Bessies funeral: On Monday, October 4, 1937, Philadelphia witnessed one of the most spectacular funerals in its history. Bessie Smith, a black super-star of the previous decadea has been, fatally injured on a dark Mississippi road eight days earlierwas given a send-off befitting the star she had never really ceased to be.When word of her death reached the black community, the body had to be moved [to another location] which more readily accommodated the estimated ten thousand admirers who filed past her bier on Sunday, October 3.The crowd outside was now seven thousand strong, and policemen were having a hard time holding it back. To those who had known Bessie in her better days, the sight was familiar.

Selected discography

The following Columbia LP reissues represent the entire published output of Bessie Smith. The notes in the accompanying booklet are by Smith biographer Chris Albertson. Many of the records used in this remastering process were borrowed from the Yale University collection donated by Carl Van Vechten and from the private collection of Robert Fertig.

The Worlds Greatest Blues Singer, Columbia GP 33, 1970.

Any Womans Blues, Columbia G 30126, 1970.

Empty Bed Blues, Columbia G 30450, 1971.

The Empress, Columbia G 30818, 1971.

Nobodys Blues But Mine, Columbia, G 31093, 1971.

Sources

Books

Albertson, Chris, Bessie, Stein and Day, 1972.

Donaldson, Norman, and Betty Donaldson, How Did They Die?, St. Martins Press, 1980.

Kinkle, Roger D., The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz 1900-1950, Volume 3, Arlington House, 1974.

Morgenstern, Dan, Jazz People, Harry N. Abrams, 1976.

Rust, Brian, Jazz Records 1897-1942, 5th Revised and Enlarged Edition, Volume 2, Storyville Publications, 1982.

Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Shapiro, Nat, and Nat Hentoff, Editors, The Jazz Makers (Bessie Smith chapter by George Hoefer), Rinehart & Co., 1957.

Terkel, Studs, and Millie Hawk Daniel, Giants of Jazz, revised edition, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.

Periodicals

Esquire, June 1969.

High Fidelity Magazine, October 1970; May 1975.

National Review, July 1, 1961.

Newsweek, February 1, 1971; January 22, 1973.

Saturday Review, December 29, 1951; February 26, 1972.

Robert Dupuis

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