Skip to main content
Select Source:

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Bessie 1894–1937." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 2 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Smith, Bessie 1894–1937." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 2, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-bessie-1894-1937

"Smith, Bessie 1894–1937." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved December 02, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-bessie-1894-1937

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Bessie Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 2 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Bessie Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 2, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bessie-smith

"Bessie Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 02, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/bessie-smith

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Bessie." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 2 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Smith, Bessie." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 2, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-bessie-0

"Smith, Bessie." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 02, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-bessie-0

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Bessie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 2 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Smith, Bessie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 2, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-bessie

"Smith, Bessie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 02, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-bessie

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Bessie." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 2 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Smith, Bessie." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 2, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-bessie

"Smith, Bessie." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 02, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-bessie

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Bessie." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 2 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Smith, Bessie." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 2, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-bessie

"Smith, Bessie." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved December 02, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-bessie

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Smith, Bessie

Smith, Bessie

April 15, 1894
September 26, 1937


The blues singer Bessie Smith, known as "Empress of the Blues," was the greatest woman singer of urban blues and, to many, the greatest of all blues singers. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the youngest of seven children of Laura and William Smith. Her father, a part-time Baptist preacher, died while she was a baby, and her early childhood, during which her mother and two brothers died, was spent in extreme poverty. Bessie and her brother Andrew earned coins on street corners with Bessie singing and dancing to the guitar playing of her brother.

The involvement of her favorite brother, Clarence, in the Moses Stokes Show was the impetus for Smith's departure from home in 1912. Having won local amateur shows, she was prepared for the move to vaudeville and tent shows, where her initial role was as a dancer. She came in contact with the singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (18861939), who was also with the Stokes troupe, but there is no evidence to support the legend that Rainey taught her how to sing the blues. They did develop a friendship, however, that lasted all of Smith's lifetime.

Smith's stint with Stokes ended in 1913, when she moved to Atlanta and established herself as a regular performer at the infamous Charles Bailey's 81 Theatre. By then the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) consortium was developing into a major force in the lives and careers of African-American entertainers, and managers and owners often made the lives of performers miserable through low pay, poor working and living conditions, and curfews. Bailey's reputation in this regard was notorious. Smith became one of his most popular singers, although she was paid only ten dollars a week.

Smith's singing was rough and unrefined, but she possessed a magnificent vocal style and commanding stage presence, which resulted in additional money in tips. With the 81 Theatre as a home base, Smith traveled on the TOBA circuit throughout the South and up and down the eastern seaboard. By 1918 she was part of a specialty act with Hazel Green, but she soon moved on to a solo act as a headliner.

Smith attracted a growing number of black followers in the rural South, as well as recent immigrants to northern urban ghettos who missed the down-home style and sound. She was too raw and vulgar, however, for the Tin Pan Alley black songwriters attempting to move into the lucrative world of phonograph recordings. White record company executives found Smith's (and Ma Rainey's) brand of blues too alien and unrefined to consider her for employment. As a result, Smith was not recorded until 1923, when the black buying public had already demonstrated that there was a market for blues songs, a market the record companies became eager to exploit.

Fortunately, Smith was recorded by the Columbia Gramophone Company, which had equipment and technology superior to any other manufacturer at the time. Columbia touted itself in black newspapers as having more "race" artists than other companies. Into this milieu came Bessie Smith singing "Down Hearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues," the former written (and previously performed) by Alberta Hunter (18951984), and the latter by Clarence Williams, a studio musician for Columbia who also played piano on both records. Sales were astronomical. Advertisements in the black newspapers reported her latest releases, and Smith was able to expand her touring range to include black theaters in all of the major northern cities. By 1924, she was the highest-paid African American in the country.

Smith sang with passion and authenticity about everyday problems, natural disasters, the horrors of the workhouse, abuse and violence, unfaithful lovers, and the longing for someoneanyoneto love. She performed these songs with a conviction and dramatic style that reflected the memory of her own suffering, and thus captured the mood of black people who had experienced pain and anguish, drawing listeners to her with empathy and intimacy. The poet Langston Hughes said Smith's blues were the essence of "sadness not softened with tears, but hardened with laughter, the absurd, incongruous laughter of a sadness without even a god to appeal to."

Smith connected with her listeners in the same manner as the southern preacher: They were her flock who came seeking relief from the burdens of oppression, poverty, endless labor, injustice, alienation, loneliness, and love gone awry. She was their spiritual leader who sang away the pain by pulling it forth in a direct, honest manner, weaving the notes into a tapestry of moans, wails, and slides. She addressed the vagaries of city life and its mistreatment of women, the depletion of the little respect women tried to maintain. She sanctioned the power of women to be their own independent selves, to love freely, to drink and party and enjoy life to its fullest, to wail, scream, and lambaste anyone who overstepped boundaries in relationshipsall of which characterized Smith's own spirit and life.

Columbia was grateful for an artist who filled its coffers and helped move it to supremacy in the recording industry. Smith recorded regularly for Columbia until 1929, producing 150 selections, of which at least two dozen were her own compositions. By the end of the 1920s, women blues singers were fading in popularity, largely because urban audiences were becoming more sophisticated. Smith appeared in an ill-fated Broadway show, Pansy, and received good reviews, but the show itself was weak and she left almost immediately. Her single film, St. Louis Blues (1929), immortalized her, although time and rough living had taken a toll on her voice and appearance by then.

Because of the Great Depression, the recording industry was in disarray by 1931. Columbia dismantled its race catalog and dropped Smith along with others. She had already begun to shift to popular ballads and swing tunes in an attempt to keep up with changing public taste. Okeh Records issued four of her selections in 1933. She altered her act and costumes in an attempt to appeal to club patrons, but she did not live to fulfill her hope of a new success with the emerging swing ensembles. On a tour of southern towns, Smith died in an automobile accident.

See also Blues, The; Blueswomen of the 1920s and 1930s; Rainey, Ma; Smith, Mamie; Taylor, Koko

Bibliography

Albertson, Chris. Bessie. New York: Stein and Day, 1972. Revised and expanded edition, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003.

Barlow, William. Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

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

Manera, Alexandria. Bessie Smith. Chicago: Raintree, 2003.

daphne duval harrison (1996)
Updated bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Bessie." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. 2 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Smith, Bessie." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 2, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-bessie

"Smith, Bessie." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved December 02, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-bessie

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

Smith, Bessie

Bessie Smith

Born April 15, 1894

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Died September 26, 1937

Clarksdale, Mississippi


American blues singer and songwriter




"Nobody messed with Bessie."

Some music fans and critics consider Bessie Smith the greatest and most influential blues singer of all time. Her powerful and dramatic style set a standard that other singers followed, and her self-assurance, distinctive personality, and sometimes wild lifestyle made her one of the most flamboyant characters of the Harlem Renaissance. Evident in the many recordings she made (most of which have been reissued since her death) are the raw emotion and underlying spirituality she brought to her music. As reported in Here Me Talkin' to Ya by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, guitarist Danny Barker said that Smith had the same effect on her listeners as the most talented southern preacher: "She could bring about mass hypnotism. When she was performing you could hear a pin drop."



An early start in entertaining

Smith was one of seven children born to an impoverished, part-time Baptist preacher and his wife in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After the deaths of her parents, she was raised by her older sister Viola and much influenced by her brother Clarence, a born entertainer himself who encouraged his little sister to learn to sing and dance. With another brother, Andrew, young Bessie performed for pennies on the street corners of Chattanooga. In 1912 Clarence helped her get a job as a dancer with his own employer, Mose Stokes's Traveling Show, one of many black music-and-comedy revues that moved around the South entertaining African American audiences.

During this period Smith sometimes appeared with a blues singer named Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. The first woman to sing the blues on stage, Ma Rainey would come to be known as the "Mother of the Blues." Over the next few years Smith performed in a number of shows. In one show she was kicked out of the chorus line for being too dark-skinned—even though the show's theme was "Glorifyin' the Brown-skinned Girl." Smith appeared again with Rainey, who no doubt influenced her own singing style, in the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show.



Became a leading blues singer

In 1918 Smith teamed with another singer named Hazel Green, and the next year she was starring in her own show, Liberty Belles. By 1920 she was well established in the southern states as a leading blues singer. This form of music—forged from a unique blend of elements, including rhythms brought by slaves from Africa, African American spirituals (religious songs), and western European folk music—had been gathering momentum in the first two decades of the twentieth century. As the Harlem Renaissance began, the blues also came into its own as a style of music enjoyed by black and white listeners alike.


The eagerness of music recording companies to benefit from the growing popularity of the blues resulted in a new "race record" industry to capture the voices of dynamic black performers. This industry initially overlooked Smith's considerable talent, as she was first rejected by the Black Swan Phonograph Corporation, which chose to feature singer Ethel Waters (1896–1977; see biographical entry) instead. Okeh Records also turned down Smith, but only a few weeks later, in February of 1923, she signed a contract with Columbia Records.

Popular as a recording artist and performer

Paid $125 for each song she recorded, Smith cut her first record on February 16, 1923. It featured "Downhearted Blues" on one side and "Gulf Coast Blues" on the other and was a huge hit, selling 780,000 copies in six months. Billed by her record company as the "Empress of the Blues," Smith soon became Columbia's bestselling artist. Her contract, however, contained no royalty agreement, meaning that she had no claim to the profits earned from record sales. As a result, Smith earned only $28,575 from the many dozens of recordings she made over the years.

The power and raw emotion of Smith's voice were immediately evident to those who heard her sing—whether in person or on records—and her equally dynamic personality made her unforgettable. The boldness and determination that shone through when Smith sang "T'ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" were especially admirable to black fans hungry for models of black pride and strength. She wrote some of her own songs, too, including "Back Water Blues," which was inspired by a flood that caused much damage and suffering, and "Poor Man's Blues," a lament about the disparity between rich and poor in America.

Smith continued to tour, becoming more and more popular, especially in the southern states, and earning up to two thousand dollars a week. She preferred to run her own shows, traveling with a special railroad car that could house all the performers in her troupe with space left over for her show tent and stage equipment.



"Nobody messed with Bessie..."

A husky woman with a bad temper, Smith worked hard and played hard. Her niece Ruby Walker, who worked and traveled with her, was quoted as saying: "Nobody messed with Bessie, black or white, it didn't make no difference." Smith reportedly chased away a gang of Ku Klux Klan (KKK; an organization that expresses its hatred of nonwhites [especially blacks], Catholics, and Jews through terrorism) members who tried to disrupt her show, and she once performed after having been stabbed in the side at a party the previous day. She liked to drink alcohol, and she was sexually interested in both men and women. Smith had a stormy relationship with her second husband, Jack Gee (her first husband, Earl Love, died in 1920), and was also linked with a wealthy Chicago bootlegger (seller of illegal liquor) named Richard Morgan.





Smith usually performed for all-black audiences, with only occasional appearances before whites, and her national reputation was based mainly on her recordings. She rarely appeared in New York, but when she did she made a big splash. She made a memorable appearance at one of the famous "integrated" (attended by both black and white guests) parties hosted by the white critic and black culture supporter Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964; see biographical entry) at his swank Manhattan apartment. Smith apparently refused Van Vechten's offer of "a dry martini" (a kind of alcoholic cocktail) with the response, "Ain't you got some whiskey, man...? I don't know about no dry martinis, nor wet ones either." One of the other guests at the party was opera singer Marguerite d'Alvarez, who performed an aria (a melodic piece performed in an opera by a solo singer) and earned a compliment from Smith: "Don't let nobody tell you you can't sing!"



Blues style falls out of favor

In the late 1920s Smith appeared in several musical reviews, including Mississippi Days (1928) and Late Hour Tap Dancers (1929), at Harlem's leading black theaters, the Lincoln and the Lafayette. But she never lingered long in New York, always heading out on tour again. Her one foray onto the Broadway stage was disastrous: Pansy (1929) closed after only three performances. Smith also appeared in a film, St. Louis Blues, produced in 1929.

During the 1930s musical tastes shifted away from the blues toward a more sophisticated kind of singing—a type more in keeping with the swing or big band (created by a group of instruments rather than solo performers) sound that had overtaken jazz. Sales of Smith's records dropped, and her contract with Columbia ended in 1931. She made her last record-ing—for Okeh records—two years later, and she stopped touring. By the middle of the 1930s, however, Smith had begun a comeback, polishing her singing to fit the new style and broadening her range of songs. In 1936 she replaced the hot jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915–1959) at Harlem's famous nightclub, Connie's Inn.



Death came too soon

In 1937, while Smith was on tour in Mississippi with a new show called Broadway Rastus, the car in which she was riding collided with a truck. Her arm was nearly severed and she received massive chest injuries. Smith died at the Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale. Over the years the rumor has persisted that Smith was first refused treatment at an all-white hospital—a common occurrence in the segregated South—but this story has never been proven true. In any case, music fans agree that one of the finest blues singers of all time had died all too soon.

Another famous singer paid a tribute to Smith in 1970. Only a few weeks before her own tragic death from a drug overdose, rock star Janis Joplin—whose rough-edged, bluesy singing style owed much to Smith's example—purchased a headstone for Smith's unmarked grave. The inscription reads "THE GREATEST BLUES SINGER IN THE WORLD WILL NEVER STOP SINGING."



For More Information

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

Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of BluesSingers. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1979.


Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

Shapiro, Nat, and Nat Hentoff. Here Me Talkin' to Ya. New York: Rinehart, 1955.

Stewart-Baxter, Derrick. Ma Rainey and the Classic Blues Singers. New York: Stein & Day, 1970.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Bessie." Harlem Renaissance. . Encyclopedia.com. 2 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Smith, Bessie." Harlem Renaissance. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 2, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/smith-bessie

"Smith, Bessie." Harlem Renaissance. . Retrieved December 02, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/culture-magazines/smith-bessie

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.