Smith, Bessie (1894–1937)
Smith, Bessie (1894–1937)
African-American vocalist and "Empress of the Blues" who was one of America's greatest jazz singers. Born on April 15, 1894 (some sources cite 1895) in Chattanooga, Tennessee; died in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on September 26 (some sources cite the 27th), 1937, from injuries suffered in an automobile accident while touring; one of seven children of William Smith (a part-time Baptist minister) and Laura Smith; married Earl Love (died c. 1920); married John "Jack" Gee (a Philadelphia night watchman), on June 7, 1923 (estranged at time of her death); children: (second marriage) one adopted son, Jack Gee, Jr.
After minimal schooling, began singing for traveling shows in segregated venues throughout the South before moving to Philadelphia (1920); made first recordings (1923) and quickly became the best-known blues performer (1920s); career declined during the Depression, due in part to changing musical tastes.
On a day in 1970, workers arrived at Mount Lawn Cemetery, near Philadelphia, to erect the headstone for a grave that had lain unmarked for 33 years, even though the funeral for the deceased had attracted some 7,000 mourners back in 1937. The gravestone was somber and restrained, two qualities which could never have been applied to Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues.
Hardly anyone except poor Southern blacks had heard of "the blues" when Smith was born to a poverty-stricken family in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894. Because no government regulation at the time considered it necessary to record the births of African-American children, Smith's birth date of April 15 can only be inferred from a marriage certificate she filled out 30 years later; and Smith was notorious for shortening her age by a year or two when she felt like it. She was one of seven children born to Laura Smith and William Smith, a part-time preacher, in what Bessie described as a "little ramshackle cabin" not far from the Tennessee River. William died when Bessie was still a baby; she was only eight when Laura passed away, leaving the eldest daughter Viola in charge of the family. Little is known about Smith's childhood, except that she sometimes sang and danced for spare change on Chattanooga's Ninth Street, and that she is unlikely to have received more than a rudimentary education.
Economic opportunities for rural southern blacks in early 20th-century America were limited to sharecropping or other menial labor, or in the thriving traveling shows that provided the only source of entertainment and amusement in an otherwise bleak existence. (Many of the traveling shows were actually owned by white theatrical producers from the North.) With their roots in the minstrel shows and vaudeville of the late 19th century, these traveling shows would play one or two nights in small storefronts or tents before moving on to the next town; and it was in one of these shows that Smith's older brother Clarence had been appearing for some months as a dancer when he suggested she audition, too. Hired on as a chorus girl, Smith was soon challenging the popularity of the most famous black performer of the day, Ma Rainey , who would come to be known as "The Mother of the Blues." The blues, with roots in the traditional ballads and work chants of black slaves, was relatively unknown by white audiences outside the South when Smith began touring.
Blues lovers have long cherished the story that Ma Rainey and her husband kidnapped Smith from her home in Chattanooga and forced her onto the show circuit, giving her a firsthand education in the blues. But there appears to be no truth to the yarn. Bessie's sister-in-law, Maude Smith —Clarence's wife—traveled on the road with Smith during the 1920s and, as an elderly woman, recalled for biographer Chris Albertson that "Bessie and Ma Rainey sat down and had a good laugh about how people was making up stories of Ma taking Bessie from her home. Ma never taught Bessie how to sing." What is known is that Smith, by 1912, was earning ten dollars a week on producer Irwin C. Miller's circuit. "She was a natural born singer, even then," Miller said many years later, although he admitted that he had Smith fired from his show, the motto of which was a Ziegfeld Follies-inspired "Glorifying the Brownskin Girl," because Smith's skin color was too dark.
Smith seemed genuinely unaware of her talent, but audiences all along the circuits she traveled caught on quickly. By the time she arrived at Atlanta's famous "81" theater, they were throwing money on the stage after her rendition of "Weary Blues," and guffawing and whistling through the bawdy lyrics of Smith's earthy numbers about the passion and frustration of love. The "81" became Smith's home base for several years before she headed north in 1918 to play Baltimore, with the nation's largest black population outside of Washington, D.C. At some time during this period, she married the son of a prominent Georgia family, Earl Love, about whom little is known save that he had died by 1920.
Smith ventured farther north during 1921 and 1922, playing Philadelphia and Atlantic City, New Jersey, the newly discovered playground of the Roaring '20s with its demand for jazz, blues, and the black musicians who knew them best. By this time, record companies were beginning to realize the potential for so-called "race records," especially after "Crazy Blues," the first known blues vocal to be recorded, sold 100,000 copies in 1920. It was sung by Mamie Smith (no relation to Bessie), a vaudeville artist from Ohio, who also has the distinction of being the first black female vocalist ever to be recorded.
Bessie Smith's first approaches to record companies were not successful; one of them even turned her down because she didn't sound "black" enough. But the growing audiences that crammed every theater she played provided evidence much to the contrary. By 1923, Smith was filling the house in Philadelphia in a revue called How Come? which included five blues numbers in its score, and would have traveled with the show to her New York City debut if she hadn't had a fight with the show's writer and gotten herself fired before the show left Philadelphia. She quickly found work at Horan's cabaret, where a handsome young man named John Gee shyly asked her for a date. Jack Gee was a night guard in Philadelphia, and had been following Smith ever since Atlantic City; her affection for him only increased when, on their first time out together, Jack was shot during an argument and ended up in the hospital. Smith visited him every day, moved in with him when he was released, and officially became Mrs. Jack Gee in June 1923.
By then, Smith had her first recording contract, with Columbia Records, for which she auditioned in February. One story has it that Columbia's director of "race records," Frank Walker, remembered hearing her in a club in Selma, Alabama, some years earlier and sent his "race record judge"—a songwriter and pianist named Clarence Williams—to Philadelphia to bring her into the studio. Another version is that Williams himself had been promoting Smith for some time before setting her up with Columbia; and yet another tale is that a record-store owner in Philadelphia suggested to Williams that Smith try out for Columbia. The correct story will never be known, but everyone remembered how Jack Gee pawned his nightwatchman's uniform to buy Smith a dress for the recording date, although Frank Walker was not impressed when Smith walked into the studio. "She looked like anything but a singer," he once recalled. "She looked about seventeen, tall and fat, and scared to death—just awful!"
Her shortness of range, in singing the blues, was no handicap. In terms of what she was saying, and how, she had all the range she needed.
Recording studios in those days were simple affairs—a small room with one wall covered by a curtain, through which poked a large metal tube with a wide opening. The sounds that traveled down the tube were scratched directly onto a rotating wax disc, from which a metal master was made and from which copies could be struck. If a mistake were made, a new disc had to be loaded for another take. Smith went through several takes of "T'Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and "Down Hearted Blues" before the session was called off without a usable recording. Things went better the next day, with the first of Smith's now-treasured Columbia recordings successfully captured—another version of "Down Hearted Blues" as well as "Gulf Coast Blues," which Clarence Williams had written for Smith. Williams persuaded Smith to take him on as her manager, signing a contract for her with Columbia for $125 per successfully recorded song. But Jack Gee, who had plans for managing Smith himself, became suspicious of Williams, and discovered that Williams was actually pocketing half of Smith's recording fee for himself. The scene which followed was typical of Smith's turbulent life and career; she and Gee stormed into Williams' office and beat him until Williams agreed to tear up the contract. Frank Walker hastily arranged a new contract directly with Columbia Records, guaranteeing Smith $1,500 in the next 12 months for a set number of recordings. Bessie and Jack were delighted, although neither thought to question Walker about the contract's provision that no royalties would be paid, for Walker well knew that that was where the real money lay. Considering Walker a model of generosity, Smith named him her manager. Columbia's faith in Bessie Smith was confirmed when "Down Hearted Blues" sold nearly 800,000 copies on its release in June 1923. For the next several years, Smith's Columbia recordings would outsell those of any other blues performer and, some said, keep Columbia Records afloat in its early years.
The eager public which snapped up her records also paid top dollar to see Smith live at the scores of theaters she played throughout the Northeast, the Midwest, and the South. When Smith arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, with her touring show, newspaper reports claimed that "streets were blocked, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds were unable to gain entrance to the performance" which, one paper said, "left the house in riot." Parallels have been drawn between Smith's shows and religious revival meetings. Guitarist Danny Barker, who often played with Smith as a young man, called attention to her Baptist upbringing and noted that "you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists [from the South] did. … She could bring about mass hysteria"; and Ralph Ellison claimed that "within the … Negro community, she was a priestess." More simply, audiences identified with Smith and the songs she sang; knew all about the pain of a cheating lover in "Down Hearted Blues," the loneliness for home in "Gulf Coast Blues," or the joys of free-wheeling passion in "I'm Wild About That Thing," one of Smith's gleefully erotic songs which she never failed to sing with suggestive abandon.
It was a tribute to Smith's extraordinary gifts that she built a respectable following among whites, too, who were at first startled by her florid costumes, enormous plumed head-pieces, and clanking costume jewelry before discovering her talent for music, comedy, and seductive dancing. Because audiences were strictly segregated, Smith frequently had to play the same show twice, and she has often been criticized for agreeing to play to whites-only audiences. But she sang the same songs and gave the same performance to both groups; it was the music that mattered to her and to her audiences, for both of whom the term "civil rights" was far in the future. Then, too, white audiences could afford to pay more for their seats, and Smith was always glad to oblige, never deluding herself about how cultured whites viewed her. "You should've seen them ofays lookin' at me like I was some kind of singin' monkey," she once told friends after singing at an all-white party in Manhattan—a party from which she exited drunk, after consuming six or seven straight whiskeys and knocking her hostess to the floor, growling obscenities. Among her Northern white admirers was journalist Carl Van Vechten, who would become the music editor of The New York Times. He described a 1925 performance he attended in Newark, New Jersey, in which Smith "wore a crimson satin robe, sweeping up from her trim ankles, and embroidered in multi-colored sequins in designs. Walking slowly to the footlights … she began her strange, rhythmic rites in a voice full of shouting and moaning and praying and suffering."
Smith herself seemed unimpressed with her own impact, outside of the fact that she was making more money for one week's performance than she had seen in all her years as a child in Chattanooga. She was, in fact, often insecure about her talent and refused to appear on the same bill with anyone else who sang blues. Her only major competition in the early 1920s was Ethel Waters , who recalled being allowed to play the same bill in Atlanta with Smith as long as she, Ethel, stayed away from blues. But the audience would have none of it, forcing the management into an argument with Smith in which she complained of "these Northern bitches" (Waters was from Pennsylvania) invading her territory. It was only when the show had closed that Smith told Waters, "You ain't so bad. It's only that I never dreamed that anyone would be able to do this to me in my own territory and with my own people. And you damn well know," Smith
made sure to add with her usual salty vocabulary, "you can't sing worth a f——."
She needn't have worried. The Roaring '20s was Smith's time. She toured, sang, and recorded tirelessly, her volatile temper and sharp tongue the fear of many, who were always sure to call her "Miss Bessie." She would take on anyone, man or woman, white or black, with flying fists and screaming voice if she felt she had been wronged; she drank liberally, making sure she was always supplied with a small bottle of corn liquor for her purse; and often made up a death in the family when a particularly diligent bout of drinking left her too ill to sing. At the same time, she was profligate with the considerable amounts of money she was being paid (by 1924, up to $2,000 a week), sending sums back home to her family in Tennessee, bailing friends out of jail, buying meals for down-and-out friends and expensive suits for Jack, who had promptly quit his job as a watchman when the money started rolling in. Although Jack never became Smith's manager, he often passed himself off as such and made sure that the one-sheets announcing Smith's appearances always said "Jack Gee Presents Bessie Smith." Smith preferred to leave her business affairs to her brother Clarence, and her recording affairs to Frank Walker who, she said, was the only white man she trusted.
In 1925, at the height of her career, Smith was traveling from city to city in her own, 72'-long railroad car with her first Harlem Frolics vaudeville show, the car being large enough to carry the entire cast, their costumes, props, tents for the more rural venues, along with a kitchen and bathrooms with hot and cold running water. The year was notable for two other events: her recording of "St. Louis Blues," with a 24-year-old Louis Armstrong on cornet, still considered the definitive version of W.C. Handy's song; and her first appearance in Chattanooga since leaving home nearly 15 years before. The house was packed all three nights, but the visit was marred when Smith was stabbed in the side by a man whom she had beaten at a party for harassing one of her chorus girls. Although she spent a night in the hospital, she walked out under her own steam the next morning and was back on stage that night.
As the decade wore on, however, problems arose—first in Smith's personal life, and then in her career. She and Jack, often separated by her busy touring schedule, both engaged in a series of affairs which frequently ended in mutual accusations and physical assaults—on each other and on each other's paramours. The last straw for Jack was the night he caught Smith dallying with one of her chorus girls, for he had been unaware until then of her bisexual tendencies. Smith managed to make it up with him and buckled down to a strenuous, sober work schedule; and, intent on creating a family atmosphere, brought her entire family—nine sisters, in-laws, nephews and nieces—from Chattanooga to Philadelphia, installing them in two houses she bought for them. In 1926, she and Jack adopted the six-year-old brother of one of her chorines, whom they named Jack, Jr. Smith showered gifts and motherly attention on "Snooks" while she was in town and left him to the care of her relatives when she was on the road. All seemed calm and domestic—until, that is, Smith grew restless again. Ruby Walker , Jack Gee's niece, was a lead chorus girl in many of Smith's shows during the '20s, and remembered that her aunt could never last for more than a month or two before looking for some fun. "She would go out for two or three weeks, ball, and then be ready to keep quiet for a month or two," Walker said. "But she could never last much longer than that." Smith for a time adopted the strategy of having her drinks served to her in the ladies' room of whatever saloon she found herself in, on the theory that Jack couldn't reach her there; but her husband would be waiting for her when she emerged, and a fistfight would inevitably ensue. There were arguments over the quantities of money Smith attempted to keep away from Jack by depositing them in her sister Viola's bank account, and disputes over the fact that Smith could easily go through $16,000 in three months with her liberality. But it was the $3,000 she gave to Jack to put together a new show that blew the marriage apart.
The show, a revue called Steamboat Days, was scheduled to go on the road in 1928—and Jack did, indeed, organize costumes, playing dates, and theaters. But when the show reached Indianapolis, Smith discovered that he had also taken some of the money and invested it in a show starring the woman with whom he had been carrying on a passionate affair for some months, Gertrude Saunders , another of Irving Miller's "brownskinned beauties." The fight that resulted, in Jack's hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, left both Smith and Jack bruised and bleeding, to say nothing of the room itself, in which hardly a stick of furniture was left intact. Smith accosted Saunders at least twice when their paths crossed on the tour circuit in the coming months, by which time she and Jack had permanently separated.
By 1929, the course of Smith's career began a downward spiral. Ironically, it was the year that Columbia released the song which is most closely identified with her, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Smith was certainly down by mid-1929, lonely and depressed after the breakup with Jack. "I'd find her crying," said her sister-in-law, Maude Smith. "She would sit up in bed, unable to sleep, and she said she was lonesome." More ominous was that, by 1929, the blues craze seemed to have run its course. Swing music was just around the corner, and many of the record companies which optimistically sprang to life to exploit the blues trend had gone out of business; Columbia was virtually the only record company left still releasing blues songs. Smith, too much of a superstar to be immediately affected, nonetheless recorded four popular, non-blues numbers and, as if trying to find a new outlet for her talents, starred in a short, 17-minute film, St. Louis Blues, based on Handy's song, in which she played a wronged woman left to drown her sorrows in gin. When the opportunity to appear on Broadway in an all-black musical, Pansy, came her way, Smith agreed to sign on—her only appearance in a Broadway theater. It was a disastrous production that closed after three performances, and only lasted that long because of Smith's singing and dancing. With public tastes turning away from vaudeville and toward radio and films, it was an especially hard time for black performers, already marginalized in a shrinking industry. Then, in October 1929, came the stock-market crash.
While Smith continued to tour and record during the early years of the Depression, bookings became harder to find and her once prodigious salaries disappeared. The Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), which managed the only black theater circuit and which had been Smith's lifeblood, began to crumble from dwindling audiences and spiraling rents. It eventually collapsed in the mid-1930s. Even Columbia Records felt the pinch, signing no new artists and cutting back on its repertory. In November 1931, Smith was told her contract would not be renewed. In her nine years with Columbia, Smith had earned a total of some $28,500, but now there was precious little of it left. Although she enjoyed a successful tour with a show called Moanin' Low, she told friends on her return to Philadelphia that there was "a lot of worry out there," and that she didn't think things would ever be the same again.
Even worse for her, Bessie discovered that Jack, now living with Gertrude Saunders, had placed their adopted son in an orphanage. After Smith's death, "Snooks" would spend much of his adolescence moving from one institution to another and fall into a number of illegal activities
before being revealed in the media in the 1960s as "Bessie Smith's long-lost son."
Things seemed to brighten by 1935, by which time Smith had begun a relationship with an old friend from her early days, Richard Morgan. Morgan had made a comfortable living as a bootlegger during Prohibition, which had been repealed in 1933, and now lived the leisurely and respectable life of a millionaire. He helped support Smith financially and emotionally during the tough times and knew enough to keep his distance when she was in one of her "ballin'" periods. It even seemed that Smith was being rediscovered after four hard years, especially when she began to modify her repertoire to include numbers in the new musical style, swing. She resumed recording for Columbia, under the guidance of John Hammond, a wealthy New Yorker related to the Vanderbilts who would go on to build the careers of such stars as Billie Holiday —who, as it turned out, Smith replaced in 1936 at a Manhattan jazz club when Holiday fell ill. As a new generation discovered Smith, she found herself in demand again, soon appearing at The Famous Door, one of Manhattan's earliest and most popular 52nd Street clubs. "New York Sees Bessie Smith, Wonders Where She's Been," went one headline, though Smith had never stopped working and had been playing to full houses in the South all along.
In September 1937, Smith agreed to appear in a touring show called Broadway Rastus, which was to open in Memphis and then travel throughout the South during the autumn and early winter. Smith took Richard Morgan with her, letting him drive the old Packard in which she now traveled—a far cry from the railroad car days. Reviews were favorable in Memphis, and Smith and Morgan were in an optimistic mood on the night of September 26, when they decided to drive ahead of the rest of the company to the tour's next stop in Mississippi. During the early morning hours of September 26, on a lonely stretch of Route 61 near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Packard collided with the rear of a trailer truck. Although Morgan, who was driving, received only cuts and bruises, Smith—riding in the passenger seat, the side of the car which slammed into the body of the truck—was severely injured, with a crushed ribcage, a nearly severed right arm, and serious head injuries. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the nearest hospital, the cause of death listed as shock, internal injuries, and loss of blood.
For many years after, it was claimed that Smith died because white hospitals refused to admit her and too much time had passed before a black hospital could be found. The story gained wide credence after John Hammond published an article making the claim in Down Beat—an article which Hammond, more than 30 years later, confessed to biographer Albertson had been based on hearsay. (Edward Albee's 1960 play, The Death of Bessie Smith, is, in turn, based largely on Hammond's article.) The press tended to ignore the white doctor who arrived at the accident scene and the black ambulance driver who took Smith to the hospital in Clarksdale, both of whom repeatedly claimed that Smith got the best care available on a deserted country road before being taken straight to the blacks-only G.T. Thomas Hospital. Some months later, the emergency-room doctor who treated her claimed that even if she had arrived only moments after the crash, there was little that could have been done to save her. Nonetheless, Hammond's version is still perpetuated, as if Smith's manner of dying were more important than anything she did in life.
The story gained renewed currency in the media coverage surrounding the small ceremony that unveiled Smith's headstone in 1970, with John Hammond in attendance representing Columbia Records, which had paid for half the costs of the stone. Absent from the proceedings was the donor of the other half—Janis Joplin , who chose not to attend, it was said, for fear of stealing attention from Smith herself. "She showed me the air, and taught me how to fill it," Joplin once said of Smith. Joplin, who would die of a drug overdose two months after the ceremony, had often publicly acknowledged the importance of Smith's work in her own career, as have Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington , Bonnie Raitt , and a host of other blues and pop singers whose debt to Bessie Smith justifies the words carved on her gravestone:
The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.
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Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. NY: Pantheon, 1998.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York