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Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
Female blues musician of the 1920's
Photo from Red Hot Jazz Archive

Bessie Smith evolved from a poverty-stricken street musician to become the most popular female blues musician of the 1920s, all the while maintaining an unapologetic attitude, an unrivaled charisma and an unrelenting realism.

Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith recorded approximately 200 songs throughout her career, dealing with themes of rejection, abuse, desertion, alcoholism, poverty and sexuality. She both celebrated and lamented the realities of the world she knew, able to express great despair but also to reaffirm the power and worth of herself and other black females of the era.

Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., in the mid-1890s, Bessie got her start as an entertainer singing and dancing for spare change on the street corners of her hometown. In 1912, she was discovered by the legendary “Ma” Rainey, who invited Smith to tour the South as a singer and dancer with Rainey’s traveling revue, "the Rabbit Foot Minstrels". Rainey would become Smith’s life long mentor and friend.

In 1915, she began touring with the Theater Owners’ Booking Association, which organized appearances of black vaudeville and tent acts across the Midwest and South. In no time she developed a significant fan base, and by the early 1920s, she was one of the most popular Blues singers in vaudeville. Soon she was signed to Columbia records and, in 1923, traveled to New York City to record her first album, accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams. The record sold more than 750,000 copies that year, making Smith the best-selling female blues singer of the era. At the peak of her career, Smith was netting a reported $2,000 a week, which also made her the highest paid black entertainer of the time.

An excessive drinker, Smith often sang about her poison of choice, gin (songs include “Gin House Blues” and “Me and My Gin”). Smith’s music was also unabashedly sexual. Themes of extramarital relationships, promiscuity and women’s sexuality, excluded from established popular music as the time, were pervasive in blues music. Smith, admittedly bisexual, even hinted at the idea of women lovers in some of her songs.

Like many female blues singers at the time, Smith also recorded songs that could be interpreted as acceptance of emotional and physical abuse by men. But the lyrics of these songs often reveal an all-knowing cynicism and subtle resistance, such as one song where Smith sings of her man beating and mistreating her, then asks, “Gee, ain’t it great to have a man that’s crazy over you?” By singing about subjects such as abuse, Smith and other female blues singers of the era were at least able to bring a taboo topic out into the open and acknowledge a societal problem.

Smith eventually went on to record with other great jazz and blues musicians, including Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson and Coleman Hawkins, and to appear in film and on Broadway. But by the early 1930s, the classic blues style of Bessie Smith was going out of style. Radio, sound movies and the Great Depression all contributed to declining record sales across musical genres, and Smith was dropped from Columbia’s roster. Despite having no record label, Smith remained popular in the South and her live shows continued to draw large crowds.

In 1933, Smith made her final recording, “Bessie Smith accompanied by Buck and his band.” Record producer John Hammond organized the session for the Okey label, and “Buck’s band” included the likes of Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden. In keeping with the times, Smith had begun to style herself as a Swing performer. Many say she was on the verge of a comeback when she was killed, in 1937, in an automobile crash in Clarksdale, Miss.

Later female singers, including Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin, have all cited Smith as an influence. In 1970, when it was discovered that Smith’s grave remained unmarked, Joplin helped pay for a proper headstone.