Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith

Smith, Bessie, 1894-1937, American singer, b. Chattanooga, Tenn. About 1910 Smith became the protégée of Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, one of the earliest blues singers. After working in traveling shows she went to New York City, where she made (1923-28) recordings, accompanied by such outstanding artists as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and James P. Johnson. She quickly became the favorite singer of the jazz public. The power and somber beauty of her voice, coupled with songs representing every variety of the blues, earned her the title "Empress of the Blues." Around 1928, changing popular taste and her growing alcoholism led to a decline in her popularity. Though she continued to tour, her last years were embittered. She died after an automobile accident while on tour in Mississippi, the circumstances of which are discussed in Edward Albee's play The Death of Bessie Smith (1960). Numerous critics regarded her as the greatest of all jazz artists, and her fame increased enormously after her death.

See biography by C. Albertson (rev. ed. 2003).

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

The most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and '30s, Smith is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era, and along with Louis Armstrong, a major influence on subsequent jazz vocalists.


For the 1900 census, Bessie Smith's mother, Laura Smith, reported that Bessie was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July 1892. However, for the following census (1910), taken on April 16, her sister, Viola Smith, and the census taker agreed on or assigned her April 15, 1894, the day preceding the census; that date appears on all subsequent documents, and was the one observed by the entire Smith family. There also remains a census-based debate regarding the size of Bessie Smith's family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but these census reports are at odds with later interviews with her family and contemporaries.

She was the daughter of Laura (Owens) Smith and William Smith. William Smith was a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a minister of the gospel, in Moulton, Lawrence, Alabama) who died before his daughter could remember him. By the time she was nine, she had lost her mother as well, and her older sister Viola was left in charge of caring for her sisters and brothers.

As a way of earning money for their impoverished household, Smith and her brother Andrew began performing on the streets of Chattanooga as a duo, she singing and dancing, he accompanying on guitar; their preferred location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of the city's African-American community.

In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, covertly left home by joining a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud. "That's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child.

In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe and arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give her an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company also included Ma Rainey.

By the early 1920s, Smith had starred with Sidney Bechet in How Come?, a musical that made its way to Broadway, and spent several years working out of Atlanta, Georgia's 81 Theater, performing in black theaters along the East Coast. Following a run-in with the producer of How Come?, she was replaced by Alberta Hunter and returned to Philadelphia, where she had taken up residence. There, she met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first recordings were being released by Columbia Records. The marriage was a stormy one, with infidelity on both sides. During the marriage, Smith became the biggest headliner on the black Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuit, running a show that sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers and made her the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Gee was impressed by the money, but never adjusted to show business life, and especially not Smith's bisexuality. In 1929, when Smith learned of Gee's affair with another performer, Gertrude Saunders, she ended the marriage, but never sought a legal divorce. Smith eventually found a common-law husband in an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton's uncle and the antithesis of her husband. She stayed with him until her death.


All contemporary accounts indicate that Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, but she probably helped her develop a stage presence. Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theatre. By 1920 she had established a reputation in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.

In 1920, sales figures for "Crazy Blues," an Okeh recording by singer Mamie Smith (no relation) pointed to a new market. The recording industry had never aimed its product at blacks, but now the door had been opened and the search for female blues singers was on. Smith was signed by Columbia Records in 1923 when the label decided to establish a "race records" series.

She scored a big hit with her first release, a coupling of "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Downhearted Blues," which its composer, Alberta Hunter had already turned into a hit on the Paramount label. Smith became a headliner on the black T.O.B.A. circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter months and doing tent tours the rest of the year (eventually traveling in her own railroad car), Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Columbia nicknamed her "Queen of the Blues", but a PR-minded press soon upgraded her title to "Empress".

She made some 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, most notably Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, and Fletcher Henderson.


Smith's career was cut short by a combination of the Great Depression (which all but put the recording industry out of business) and the advent of "talkies", which spelled the end for vaudeville. She never stopped performing, however. While the days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, Smith continued touring and occasionally singing in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called Pansy, a musical in which, the top critics agreed, she was the only asset.


In 1929, Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler titled St. Louis Blues, based on W. C. Handy's song of the same name. In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, pianist James P. Johnson, and a string section — a musical environment radically different from any found on her recordings.

Swing era

In 1933, John Hammond saw Smith perform in a small Philadelphia club and asked her to record four sides for the Okeh label (which had been acquired by Columbia).

These performances, for which Hammond paid her a non-royalty fee of $37.50 each, were recorded on November 24, 1933. They constitute Smith's final recordings and are of particular interest because Smith was in the process of translating her blues artistry into something more apropos to the Swing Era.

The accompanying band included such Swing Era musicians as trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, pianist Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, and bassist Billy Taylor. Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in the adjoining studio, dropped by for an almost inaudible guest visit. Hammond was not pleased with the result, preferring to have Smith back in her old blues groove, but "Take Me For A Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot" (in which Goodman is part of the ensemble) remain among her most popular recordings.


On September 26, 1937, Smith was severely injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi with her lover (and Lionel Hampton's uncle), Richard Morgan, at the wheel. She was taken to Clarksdale's Afro-American Hospital where her right arm was amputated. She did not regain consciousness, dying that morning.

Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia on October 4, 1937. It was attended by about seven thousand people, according to contemporary newspaper reports. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearby Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania. Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone, once or twice even pocketing money raised for that purpose. The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970, when a new tombstone was placed, paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who, as a child, had done housework for Smith.

The Afro-American Hospital, now the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, was the site of the dedication of the fourth historic marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Selective awards and recognitions

Grammy Hall of Fame

Recordings of Bessie Smith were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy Award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."

Bessie Smith: Grammy Hall of Fame Award

Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1923 "Downhearted Blues" Blues (Single) Columbia 2006
1925 "St. Louis Blues" Jazz (Single) Columbia 1993
1928 "Empty Bed Blues" Blues (Single) Columbia 1983

National Recording Registry

Smith's recording of the single "Downhearted Blues" was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2002. The board selects songs in an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.

"Downhearted Blues" is included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001, and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock 'n' roll.


Year Inducted Category Notes
1989 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
1989 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame "Early influences"
1981 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame
1980 Blues Hall of Fame

U.S. Postage Stamp

Year Issued Stamp USA Note
1994 29 cents Commemorative stamp U.S. Postal Stamps - align=center

Digital remastering

Given the technical faults in the majority of her original gramophone recordings -- especially variations in recording speed, which raised or lowered the apparent pitch of her voice, misrepresented the "light and shade" of her phrasing, interpretation and delivery, and altered the apparent key of her performances (sometimes raised or lowered by as much as a semitone) and, also, the fact that the "centre hole" in some of the master recordings had not been in the true middle of the master disc, meaning that there were wide variations in tone, pitch, key and phrasing as the commercially released record revolved around its spindle -- there is a significant, very positive difference in the performance that Smith delivers in the current digitally remastered versions of her work. A widely held view is that the American Columbia Records compact disc releases are somewhat inferior to subsequent transfers made by the late John R.T. Davies for Frog Records.

References in other works

  • The turbulent life of Bessie Smith is the subject of the critically acclaimed play with music, "The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith," written by Angelo Parra (, conceived of by director Joe Brancato ( and starring Miche Braden. The play, featuring the songs Bessie made famous, has been performed at such prestigous venues as The Hartford Stage, Florida Stage, Cape Playhouse, Theatre Memphis, and the Passage Theatre to name but a few.
  • The Band wrote a song about Bessie Smith named after her (the song is included on the album The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan & The Band, first released in 1975). Singer Norah Jones included the song in a 2002 concert performance at the House of Blues. Excerpt of the lyrics to The Band's "Bessie Smith":

"Bessie was more than just a friend of mine
We shared the good times with the bad
Now many a year has passed me by
I still recall the best thing I ever had

I'm just goin' down the road t' see Bessie
Oh, See her soon
Goin' down the road t' see Bessie Smith
When I get there I wonder what she'll do.."

  • Kings and Queens, a 1996 album by the Seattle punk band The Gits, included a live piano-accompanied improvisation cover of Smith's "Graveyard Dream Blues" named "Graveyard Blues". The song starts with lead singer Mia Zapata telling the audience that "This is a song by (...) Bessie Smith. This is from her to you..."
  • In early 2006, UK alternative rock/hip hop act Bad Music Inc. paid tribute to Smith with their song "Bessie". Excerpt of the lyrics to Bad Music Inc's "Bessie":

"It's easy to forget, or not to be aware
So let me take a moment, I've a legacy to share
Bessie, Bessie sing through your pain..."

  • Singer/pianist/songwriter Nina Simone dedicates her blues song "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl" to Smith on her live album It Is Finished (1974), stating "Bessie Smith, you know?..." before commencing with the song. Ironically, the song title was changed to "I Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl" on the album, and credited to Simone.
  • Often the subject of concept albums, Smith has been paid such a recorded tribute by numerous singers, including Juanita Hall, Dinah Washington, and Teresa Brewer.
  • Smith is mentioned in Dory Previn's song "A Stone for Bessie Smith" on her album Mythical Kings & Iguanas.
  • The 1948 short story "Blue Melody" by J.D. Salinger and the 1959 play The Death of Bessie Smith by Edward Albee both deal with Smith's death and say a whites-only hospital refused to treat her, although this has been disproved (see the article on the play). The Salinger story refers to a fictional blues singer named Lida Louise Jones, whose life and death have similarities to Smith's.
  • The Israeli musical Don't Call Me Black! includes a song entitled "Who Murdered Bessie Smith?", discussing the question regarding the ownership of responsibility for Smith's death.
  • Her song "See If I'll Care" was used by the early 1990s Screamo band Indian Summer for their song "Angry Son", in which they play their own instruments over her version.
  • John Berryman makes frequent reference to Bessie Smith in The Dream Songs.


Further reading

  • Albertson, Chris, Liner notes, Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings, Volumes 1 - 5, Sony Music Entertainment, 1991.
  • Albertson, Chris, Bessie (Revised and Expanded Edition), Yale University Press (New Haven), 2003. ISBN 0-300-09902-9.
  • Brooks, Edward, The Bessie Smith Companion: A Critical and Detailed Appreciation of the Recordings, Da Capo Press (New York), 1982. ISBN 0306762021.
  • Davis, Angela Y., Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Pantheon Books (New York), 1998. ISBN 0-679-45005-X.
  • Eberhardt, Clifford, Out of Chattanooga, Ebco (Chattanooga), 1994.
  • Feinstein, Elaine, Bessie Smith, Viking (New York), 1985, ISBN 0670806420.
  • Grimes, Sara, Backwaterblues: In Search of Bessie Smith, Rose Island Pub. (Amherst), 2000, ISBN 0970708904.
  • Kay, Jackie, Bessie Smith, Absolute (New York), 1997. ISBN 1-899791-55-8.
  • Manera, Alexandria, Bessie Smith, Raintree (Chicago), 2003. ISBN 0739868756.
  • Martin, Florence, Bessie Smith, Editions du Limon (Paris), 1994. ISBN 290722431X.
  • Oliver, Paul, Bessie Smith, Cassell (London), 1959.
  • Palmer, Tony, All You Need is Love: The Story of Popular Music, Grossman Publishers/Viking Press (New York), 1976. ISBN 0-670-11448-0.
  • Welding, Pete; Byron, Tony (eds.), Bluesland: Portraits of Twelve Major American Blues Masters, Dutton (New York), 1991. ISBN 0-525-93375-1.

External links

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