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The Lady Could Sing!

Updated on October 4, 2008

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith was a rough, crude, violent woman. She was also the greatest of the classic Blues singers of the 1920s. Bessie started out as a street musician in Chattanooga. In 1912 Bessie joined a traveling show as a dancer and singer. The show featured Pa and Ma Rainey, and Smith developed a friendship with Ma. Ma Rainey was Bessie's mentor and she stayed with her show until 1915. Bessie then joined the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit and gradually built up her own following in the south and along the eastern seaboard. By the early 1920s she was one of the most popular Blues singers in vaudeville. In 1923 she made her recording debut on Columbia, accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams. They recorded "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Down Hearted Blues." The record sold more than 750,000 copies that same year, rivaling the success of Blues singer Mamie Smith (no relation). Throughout the 1920s Smith recorded with many of the great Jazz musicians of that era, including Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman and Louis Armstrong. Her rendition of "St. Louis Blues" with Armstrong is considered by most critics to be one of finest recordings of the 1920s. Bessie Smith was one of the biggest African-American stars of the 1920s and was popular with both Whites and African-Americans, but by 1931 the Classic Blues style of Bessie Smith was out of style and the Depression, radio, and sound movies had all damaged the record companies' ability to sell records so Columbia dropped Smith from its roster. In 1933 she recorded for the last time under the direction of John Hammond for Okeh. The session was released under the name of Bessie Smith accompanied by Buck and his Band. Despite having no record company Smith was still very popular in the South and continued to draw large crowds, although the money was not nearly as good as it had been in the 1920s. Bessie had started to style herself as a Swing musician and was on the verge of a comeback when her life was tragically cut short by an automobile accident in 1937. While driving with her lover Richard Morgan (Lionel Hampton's uncle) in Mississippi their car rear-ended a slow moving truck and rolled over crushing Smith's left arm and ribs. Smith bled to death by the time she reached the hospital. John Hammond caused quite a stir by writing an article in Downbeat magazine suggesting that Smith had bled to death because she had been taken to a White hospital and had been turned away. This proved not to be true, but the rumor persists to this day.

The Obituary of Bessie Smith?

There is no real proof if this is her actual obituary

Bessie Smith, Blues Singer

Known as the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee into extreme poverty. Her date of birth is uncertain and is variously given as April 15, 1894-6, 1898, and 1900. Bessie's career began when she was 'discovered' by none other than Ma Rainey when Ma's revue, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, was passing through Chattanooga around 1912 and she had the occasion to hear young Bessie sing. Ma took a teenaged Bessie on the road with the show and communicated, consciously or not, the subtleties and intricacies of an ancient and still emerging art form.

Bessie started working small-time traveling tent shows, such as Charles P. Bailey's troupe and Pete Werley's Florida Cotton Blossoms, carnivals, and hony-tonks. A recording director discovered her and brought her to New York City. Her first recording, Down Hearted Blues, was released in the spring of 1923. Though released without special promotion, it was an immediate success, and had sold over two million copies by the end of the first year of release, an immense number for that time.

As a result of her hit, she started touring on the best race artist vaudeville circuits booked by the Toby, or TOBA, short for Theatre Owners Booking Association, but also thought to stand for Tough On Black Artists. In the mid-twenties she toured the entire south and most of the major northern cities, always as the star attraction on the bill. She was the highest paid Black entertainer in the country at the time, completely booked at $1500 a week, while her records remained hot.

By 1930 her career had faltered due to the public's changing musical tastes, mismanagement of her affairs, and her heavy drinking. She had started drinking excessively in her teens and drank more heavily as time passed. Gin was her preferred drink, downing tumbler full at a time. Her odes to gin include Gin House Blues and Me and My Gin. In many ways Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out was an autobiographical confession for Smith.

Bessie's last recording session in 1933 billed as a comeback, was in large measure a sentimental gesture by producer John Hammond. Her last New York appearance was in 1936 at a Sunday afternoon jam session sponsored by United Hot Clubs of America at the original Famous Door on 52nd Street.

On the eve of John Hammond's departure to Mississippi to bring her back to New York, September 26, 1937, to record again, Bessie Smith was in an automobile accident just below Clarksdale, Mississippi on the main road to Memphis. Her right arm was nearly severed in the crash, and Bessie died from loss of blood.

Bessie Smith left behind 160 recordings. Smith recorded with many of the jazz greats of her day including Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson and Joe Smith, influencing them as they influenced her. She also performed in the short movie The St. Louis Blues (1929).

Bessie Smith - I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl

Empress of the Blues

Bessie Smith (July 9, 1892 or April 15, 1894– September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer.
Bessie Smith (July 9, 1892 or April 15, 1894– September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer.

What is the historical sinificance of Bessie Smith?

Red Hot Jazz: Bessie Smith

Biography and sound clips of the Empress of the Blues.

Category: Blues, Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 - September 26, 1937) is largely regarded as the most popular and successful blues singers of her time. Born in the United States on April 15, 1894,

Bessie Smith was one of six surviving childern.

Jazz: Bessie Smith

Biography and sound files from the PBS special on the history of jazz by Ken Burns.

Category: Blues, Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Bessie Smith :

... Bessie Smith earned the title of "Empress of the Blues" by virtue of her forceful vocal delivery.

Category: Blues: Bessie Smith (1894-1937) The Essential Bessie Smith: Music

The Essential Bessie Smith, Bessie Smith Bessie Smith: Book by Jackie Kay

... like Edward Albee, whose play The Death of Bessie Smith helped promulgate the myth, of her death. A solid Bessie Smith primer but a lot of old news,

World Book || Bessie Smith

Library of. Congress. Bessie Smith (1894-1937) became one of the finest blues singers in the history of jazz. A series of recordings she made from 1923 to 1933 rank among the best in jazz.

Trail of the Hellhound: Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith - Memphis School. Look at a sample of "St. Louis Blues" (RealMedia)

Emperess of the Blues" eternally rests on the graceful shoulders of Bessie Smith, a pioneer in the vocal side of the blues music .


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  • Ralph Deeds profile image

    Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

    Great hub!