Bessie Smith was bold and bawdy. Bessie Smith was talented and tough. Bessie Smith was sassy, sexy and sultry. Bessie Smith was "The Empress of the Blues." Bessie took the genre to new heights, soaring and surpassing the success of many of her male counterparts.
No other female blues singer personifies the blues, historically or contemporarily, as much as Bessie Smith. Alberta Hunter, a giant of the genre herself, proclaimed, " Bessie Smith was the greatest of them all. There never was one like her and there'll never be one like here again. Even though she was raucous and loud, she had sort of a tear - no, not a tear, but there was a misery in what she did. It was as though there was something she had to get out, something she just had to bring fore. " ( Jones, Page 33)
Bessie was born to Laura and William Smith in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894. But like so many African-Americans during that time, birth records were not accurately kept and the birth year has come into question. The family was large and poor. Soon after Bessie's birth, her father (a part-time Baptist preacher) died, followed by two of her brothers. Laura Smith only lived till Bessie was nine years old. The remaining six children had to learn to take care of themselves. "For young girls in the South that time there were not many choices...but Bessie was lucky. Bessie could sing. (Jones, page 34)
Bessie began performing on the street corners along with her brother Clarence. Clarence later joined The Moses Stokes Minstrel Show and got Bessie an audition. Gertrude "Ma" Rainey was also performing with this show and this is where their relationship was nurtured and developed. Their relationship has been an object of controversy. Many have said that "Ma" kidnapped the young Bessie and made her perform and even that Ma taught Bessie how to sing. "Though many legends have surrounded their relationship, Cl;arence's wife Maude reported that the Rainey's never kidnapped Bessie...nor did Ma teach Bessie how to sing...in any case, the two remained fond of each other even after Bessie went off on her own. "(Jones, Page 34)
In 1920 Bessie moved to Atlantic City. This was the same year that Mamie Smith recorded the first African-American blues record "Crazy Blues," causing a revolution in the industry and was the catalyst for the beginning of the era of the "race record." Before then, the music industry was not certain if blacks would support their music. After the phenomenal success of "Crazy Blues," they saw different and Bessie was able to take advantage of the change.
Female "blues singers" (often many sang in a "caberet" style) became immensely popular during this period. Many female blues singers did not have the power of Bessie's vocals. Many thought her voice may have been just a bit too much. " [Bessie] auditioned for three [recording] companies and they all turned her down. Too loud, they said, not refined enough. Thomas Edison who owned one company, thought her voice was "no good." (Jones, Page 38.)
After this disappointment, Bessie was not deterred. She continued to perform and in 1922, under the direction of a new recording executive at the failing Columbia Records, Bessie Smith (with her pianist and promoter Clarence Williams) was beginning to make musical history. Her first release in 1923 "Downhearted Blues" (written by Alberta Hunter) was a huge success. It sold 750,000 copies! Bessie eventually sold two million records more than an other Columbia artist, mostly bought by the black community. (Jones, page 42)
"Through Bessie Smith, the blues were raised to an artform that was to be the hallmark for every woman blues singer who recorded during the 1920's. Smith's songs covered many of the same themes as did Ma Rainey's; she could sing about violence or the threat of prison without any hint of tears or remorse, or loneliness and abandonment with a wrenching mournfulness. Her blues emanated from the violence and complexities of the urban experience and its effect on black women. 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," (Harrison).
Bessie's personal life was often tumultuous. She married Jack McGee in June 1923 and is known to have been openly bisexual. Bessie made lots of money which she spent often too freely and with abandon, even buying a luxury railroad car she named the "Jackie Gee." Bessie had a quick temper that was acerbated by her drinking, which she began to do more and more. In 1930 her marriage was over and the Stock Market Crash and the subsequent Great Depression made it difficult for Bessie's core audience to buy her albums. The era of prosperity was over. Bessie still sang. She began to sing popular tunes of the day and was even featured at the Apollo in New York City in 1935 where she still took command of the stage.
In 1937, on her way to perform in a show, Bessie was killed in a horrific auto accident. Many have suggested that she died as a result of bleeding to death when refused treatment at a "whites only" hospital. Although the entrenched racism and "culture" of the time lends credibility to this story, it has been basically proven not be true.
Bessie Smith will never be forgotten. She left behind 180 recordings. She changed and helped to shape American music history. Among those who consider her an influence are such diverse artists as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and blues, jazz and pop singer Dinah Washington. She was truly "The Empress" and her musical royalty will continue to reign supreme.
References for Profile:
"Big Star Fallin Mama" , Hettie Jones, 1974, revised 1975 "Black Pearls, Blues Queens of the 1920's" by Daphne Duval Harrison
There are SO MANY excellent references on Bessie Smith. This short profile in no way details the life and music of this great woman.
On the Internet:
Bessie Smith's Links Page: http://alt.venus.co.uk/weed/bessie/welcome.htm
Books to Read (available at Amazon.com):
Bessie Smith Songbook Paperback / Published 1994