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

Sometimes referred to as "The Empress of the Blues", Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era, and along with Louis Armstrong, a major influence on subsequent jazz vocalists.


The 1900 census indicates that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennesseemarker in July 1892. However, the 1910 census recorded her birthday as April 15, 1894, a date that appears on all subsequent documents, and was observed by the entire Smith family. Census data also contributes to controversy about the size of her family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, while later interviews with Smith's family and contemporaries did not include these individuals among her siblings.

Bessie Smith was the daughter of Laura (née Owens) 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, Alabamamarker.) He died before his daughter could remember him. By the time she was nine, she had lost her mother as well. Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings.

To earn money for their impoverished household, Bessie Smith and her brother Andrew began busking on the streets of Chattanoogamarker as a duo: she singing and dancing, he accompanying her on guitar. Their favorite 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. He arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give Smith an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company also included the notable singer Ma Rainey.

By the early 1920s, Smith had starred with Sidney Bechet in How Come?, a musical that made its way to Broadwaymarker. She spent several years working out of Atlanta, Georgiamarker's 81 Theater, and performing in black theaters along the East Coast. Following a run-in with the producer of How Come?, Smith was replaced by Alberta Hunter and returned to Philadelphiamarker, 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. Her show 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, or to Smith's bisexuality. In 1929, when Smith learned of Gee's affair with Gertrude Saunders, another performer, she ended the marriage, though she never sought a 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.

Portrait of Bessie Smith


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" Theater. By 1920 she had established a reputation in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.

In 1920, sales figures for "Crazy Blues," an Okeh Records recording by singer Mamie Smith (no relation) pointed to a new market. The recording industry had not directed its product to blacks, but the success of the record led to a search for female blues singers. Bessie Smith was signed by Columbia Records in 1923 and her first session for Columbia was February 15, 1923. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia's regular A- series; when the label decided to establish a "race records" series, Smith's "Cemetery Blues" (Sepetember 26, 1923) was the first issued.

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 Broadwaymarker flop called Pansy, a musical in which top critics said 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 Astoriamarker, 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 asked Smith to record four sides for Okeh, which had been acquired by Columbia Records. He claimed to have found her in semi-obscurity, working as a hostess in a speakeasy on Philadelphia's Ridge Avenue. Bessie Smith worked at Art's Cafe on Ridge Avenue, but not as a hostess and not until the summer of 1936. In 1933, when she made the Okeh sides, Bessie was still touring. Hammond was known for his selective memory and gratuitous embellishments.

Bessie Smith was paid a non-royalty fee of $37.50 for each selection and these Okeh sides, which were her last recordings. Made November 24, 1933, they serve as a hint of the transformation she made in her performances as she shifted her blues artistry into something that fit the "swing era". The relatively modern accompaniment is notable. The 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 and is barely audible on one selection. Hammond was not entirely pleased with the results, preferring to have Smith revisit her old blues groove. Her "Take Me For A Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot" continue to be ranked among her most popular recordings..


On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennesseemarker, and Clarksdale, Mississippimarker. Her lover Richard Morgan was driving and, probably mesmerized by the long stretch of straight road, misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Tire marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith's old Packard. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.

The first people on the scene were a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation), and his fishing partner Henry Broughton. In the early 1970s, Dr. Smith gave a detailed account of his experience to Bessie's biographer Chris Albertson. This is the most reliable eyewitness testimony about the events surrounding Bessie Smith's death.

After stopping at the accident scene, Dr. Smith examined Bessie Smith, who was lying in the middle of the road with obviously severe injuries. He estimated she had lost about half a pint of blood, and immediately noted a major traumatic injury to her right arm. It had been almost completely severed at the elbow. But, Dr. Smith was emphatic that this arm injury alone did not cause her death. Although the light was poor, he observed only minor head injuries. He attributed her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a "sideswipe" collision.

Broughton and Dr. Smith moved the singer to the shoulder of the road. Dr. Smith dressed her arm injury with a clean handkerchief and asked Broughton to go to a house about 500 feet off the road to call an ambulance.

By the time Broughton returned, about 25 minutes had elapsed since the accident, and Bessie Smith was in shock. Time passed with no sign of the ambulance, so Dr. Smith suggested that they take her into Clarksdale in his car. He and Broughton had almost finished clearing the back seat when they heard the sound of a car approaching at high speed. Dr. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the oncoming car failed to stop and plowed into the doctor's car at speed. It sent his car careening into Bessie Smith's overturned Packard, completely wrecking it. The oncoming car ricocheted off Dr. Smith's car into the ditch on the right, barely missing Broughton and Bessie Smith.

The young couple in the new car did not have life-threatening injuries. Two ambulances arrived on the scene from Clarksdale. One from the black hospital, summoned by Mr. Broughton, the other from the white hospital, acting on a report from the truck driver, who had not seen the accident victims but obviously assumed that they were white.

Bessie Smith was taken to Clarksdale's Afro-American Hospital where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After Smith's death, an often repeated but now discredited story emerged about the circumstances; namely, that she had died as a result of having been refused admission to a "Whites Only" hospital in Clarksdale. Jazz writer/producer John Hammond gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine). The circumstances of Smith's death and the rumor promoted by Hammond formed the basis for Edward Albee's 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith.

"The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to white hospital, you can forget that." Dr. Smith told Albertson. "Down in the Deep South cotton country, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks."

Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphiamarker on Monday, October 4, 1937. Her body was originally laid out at Upshur's funeral home. As word of her death spread through Philadelphia's black community, the body had to be moved to the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday, October 3. Contemporary newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearby Sharon Hill, Pennsylvaniamarker. for Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.

The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970. A tombstone was erected which had been 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. This special Grammy Award was 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

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

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


Year Inducted Category Notes
2008 Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC
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
1994 29 cents Commemorative stamp U.S. Postal Stamps

Digital remastering

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. They altered the apparent key of her performances (sometimes raised or lowered by as much as a semitone.) The fact that the "centre hole" in some of the master recordings had not been in the true middle of the master disc meant that there were wide variations in tone, pitch, key and phrasing, as commercially released records revolved around the spindle.

Given those historic limitations, the current digitally remastered versions of her work deliver significant, very positive differences in the sound quality of Smith's performances. Some critics believe 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.

Popular culture

  • The 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.

  • John Berryman makes frequent reference to Bessie Smith in The Dream Songs.

  • Dory Previn's song, "A Stone for Bessie Smith", is on her album Mythical Kings & Iguanas.

  • 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).

  • Singer Marc Almond, formerly of Soft Cell, refers to Bessie Smith in the song, "Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters" from the album of the same name.

  • Her song "See If I'll Care" was used by the early 1990s Screamo band Indian Summer for their song "Angry Son".

  • The Israelimarker musical Don't Call Me Black! includes a song entitled "Who Murdered Bessie Smith?".

  • Folk Rock artist Emily Jane White makes a reference to Bessie Smith in her song, "Bessie Smith" on the album "Dark Undercoat".

  • Smith is mentioned in Valdy's song "Peter and Lou".


  1. Bessie Smith at
  2. Albertson. Bessie (Revised and Expanded Edition), Yale University Press (New Haven), 2003. ISBN 0-300-09902-9.
  3. Albertson, 2003, page 11.
  4. Albertson, 2003.
  5. Albertson, 2003, pp. 14-15.
  6. Oliver, Paul. "Bessie Smith", in Kernfeld, Barry. ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd Edition, Vol. 3. London: MacMillan, 2002. p. 604.
  7. Albertson, 2003, pp. 80.
  8. Hammond, "John Hammond On Record", pp. 120.
  9. Albertson, Bessie, pp. 224-225.
  10. Albertson. Bessie (Revised and Expanded Edition), Yale University Press (New Haven), 2003. ISBN 0-300-09902-9
  11. Chris Albertson: Bessie: Empress of the Blues (Sphere Books, London, 1972) ISBN 0-300-09902-9), pp. 192–195
  12. Chris Albertson: Bessie: Empress of the Blues (Sphere Books, London, 1972) ISBN 0-300-09902-9), p.195
  13. Chris Albertson: Bessie: Empress of the Blues (Sphere Books, London, 1972) ISBN 0-300-09902-9), p.196
  14. Chris Albertson, Bessie: Empress of the Blues (Sphere Books, London, 1975, ISBN 0 349 10054 3)
  15. Albertson, Bessie, pp. 2-5 and 277.
  16. Albertson, Bessie, p. 277.
  17. Grammy Hall of Fame Award Database
  18. 2002 Registry choices
  19. Librarian of Congress Names 50 Sound Recordings to the Inaugural National Recording Registry
  20. 500 Songs That Shaped Rock

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.

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