"Empress of the Blues": Bessie Smith
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
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
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
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.
Alberston, pages 140-145.
Ibid., pages 132-133.
Brooks, pages 189-225.
[x] Albertson, pages 180-182.
[xi] Ibid., 222-223.
[xii] Ibid., 233-234.