"Empress of the Blues": Bessie Smith

by Flapperjane

copyright 2004 by Sarah Baker.  All Rights Reserved.

Finding a Bessie Smith 78 in good condition is like stumbling across the Holy Grail at a garage sale. It never happens. All the 78s I have been lucky enough to find—and afford—are so worn the grooves have almost disappeared, the surfaces rendered cloudy as cataracts. Yet the labels are still intact, with the Columbia banner unfurling proudly, announcing “Bessie Smith-Comedienne” (Smith, always ahead of her time, was also ahead of the label “blues singer”) singing “Rocking Chair Blues,” “Sorrowful Blues,” “St. Louis Blues.” These are recordings that have been loved. They have been played over and over again, steel needles scratching away surfaces. But they have been kept nicely, put away in paper to keep the labels crisp and stored upright so they won’t warp. These 78s were treasures, but treasures that have been thoroughly enjoyed. 

Smith’s voice wells up through the pops and hisses that a record makes when it’s played on a vintage Victrola. She is loud, insistent, hypnotic, and she enunciates so well that eighty years later, listening to a recording that is worn beyond recognition, I can understand every word she is singing. This is no small accomplishment, for when she started her career she had to shout her songs into a recording horn, which were then acoustically recorded into wax.  Smith did not make her first electrical recording until May 1925 with “Cake Walking Babies.” By then, she had been recording with Columbia for two years.[i]

Bessie Smith in 1923, photograph by Edward Elcha. Sarah Baker Collection.

Bessie Smith was born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.[ii] It was an era of extremely limited choices for anyone poor, black, and female. But in addition to raw talent, Bessie had tenaciousness, a driving ambition, and a fearlessness that served her well on the road to fame and in her dealings with the white male-dominated recording industry. When she was nine, she sang on street corners for spare change, shouting “That’s right Charlie!  Give to the church!” when big money was flung her way. In 1912, her brother, Clarence, arranged her audition with Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and she was immediately invited to join the troupe. Touring with Rainey was the perfect breeding ground for Smith’s talent, and she found a lifelong friend and substitute mother in Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues.”[iii]  

Ma Rainey, the "Mother of the Blues." Sarah Baker Collection.

Having proved a success on the tour circuit, Smith signed with Columbia Records on April 20, 1923.[iv] She was the right woman in the right place at the right time. Recording technology was taking off, making it possible to capture performances permanently on record, and phonographs were inexpensive, opening her audience wider than it could possibly have been twenty years before. Moreover, the blues were wildly popular. Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues” kicked off the craze, and  record companies scrambled to create “race record” divisions and sign black musicians and singers. These “race records” crossed racial divisions and became as popular, if not more so, than mainstream recordings.[v] Jazz and blues were the soundtrack of the Jazz Age. Everything that had been prohibited only years before had suddenly become the rage, embraced by a generation echoing Zelda Fitzgerald’s battle cry “Out with inhibitions!” And while several blues women were popular, such as Mamie Smith, Clara Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox, only Bessie Smith became a superstar.

Smith had a hypnotic effect on audiences, as pianist Art Hodes recalled: “There’s no explainin’ her singing, her voice. She don’t need a mike; she don’t use one…As she sings she moves slowly round the stage. Her head, sort of bowed.  From where I’m sittin’ I’m not sure whether she even has her eyes open. On and on, number after number, the same hush, the great performance, the deafening applause.”[vi] Her appeal crossed racial boundaries, and Smith did perform for white audiences, but she never felt the need to cultivate a white following. Carl Van Vechten, assistant music critic for the New York Times, adored her and brought high-profile friends to her performances. On one memorable occasion, Van Vechten invited her to his flat to perform for his friends, among them Fred and Adele Astaire and George Gershwin. Smith complied but it was a tense evening. Upon leaving, Mrs. Van Vechten tried to embrace Smith, but Smith shoved her to the floor, shouting, “I ain’t never heard of such shit!”[vii] Smith obviously felt no need of changing who she was to impress the “ofays,” as she termed the Van Vechten crowd.

Smith also felt no fear when it came to confronting the racism so prevalent in the South.  Once, when performing a tent show in a Southern town, members of the Ku Klux Klan, in full Klan regalia, surrounded the tent, threatening to pull it down and trap everyone inside. Smith stormed out and confronted them, shouting, “You had better pick up them sheets and run!”  The men took to their heels. Smith went back to performing, as if confronting the KKK were all in a day’s work.[viii]

Smith’s career with Columbia lasted nine years, during which she made more than 150 recordings, one short film, toured endlessly, and made countless stage appearances.[ix] As the Jazz Age wound down, so did the blues craze. Although Smith had always incorporated pop songs into her repertoire, she was primarily identified as a blues singer and her popularity waned. The recording industry was hit hard by the Depression and Columbia, nearly bankrupt, dropped Smith in 1931.[x] She continued making stage appearances and made a few recordings for Okeh Records. She also lavished love and attention on her adopted son, Jack Gee, Jr.

On September 26, 1937, Smith was in a terrible car accident in Memphis. She was critically injured and died after being taken by ambulance to a “colored hospital.”[xi] Controversy has surrounded Smith's death; many accounts state that Smith was refused admittance to a “white hospital” and bled to death. However, according to biographer Chris Alberston, the extent of her injuries were such that this was not this case.  Her grave remained unmarked until 1970, when her former maid Juanita Green and singer Janis Joplin paid for a fitting monument to the “Empress of the Blues.”[xii]

However, Smith’s legacy did not die on a Memphis road, nor did it languish untended for years. Her mesmeric talent, her audacious self-confidence, and her great spirit have inspired countless performers, from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin to Norah Jones. Her voice, loud, proud, angry, and defiant, still wells up from 78s worn beyond recognition, crying, “I’ve got the world in a jug…the stopper’s in my hands.”

 

To get The Dope on Bessie Smith, click here.

 



[i] Brooks, Edward.  The Bessie Smith Companion.  New York: De Capo Press, 1982, page 77.

[ii] Albertson, Chris.  Bessie.  London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1972, page 25.

[iii] Ibid., page 26.

[iv] Ibid., page 46.

[v] Ibid, pages 36-37.

[vi] Feinstein, Elaine.  Bessie Smith.  New York: Viking Press, 1985, pages 80-81.

[vii] Alberston, pages 140-145.

[viii] Ibid., pages 132-133.

[ix] Brooks, pages 189-225.

[x] Albertson, pages 180-182.

[xi] Ibid., 222-223.

[xii] Ibid., 233-234.