Episode 10: Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15, 1894. She began to sing at a young age and in 1923 signed a contract with Columbia Records. Soon she was among the highest-paid black performers of her time with hits like “Downhearted Blues.” By the end of the 1920s, however, her career suffered from both the Depression and her battle with alcoholism. She continued to perform and made new recordings at the start of the Swing Era. Her comeback and life were cut short when she was killed in an automobile accident outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi on September 26, 1937.

Early Life

Bessie Smith was born Elizabeth Smith on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was one of seven children. Her father, a Baptist minister, died soon after her birth, leaving her mother to raise her and her siblings. Around 1906, her mother and two of her brothers died and Smith and her remaining siblings were raised by their aunt. It was around this time that Smith began to perform as a street singer, accompanied on the guitar by one of her younger brothers. In 1912, Smith began performing as a dancer and a singer in the Moses Stokes minstrel show, and soon thereafter in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, of which blues vocalist Ma Rainey was a member. Rainey took Smith under her wing and gave her some early training, and over the next decade Smith continued to perform at various theaters and on the vaudeville circuit.

The Empress of the Blues

By the early 1920s, Smith had settled down and was living in Philadelphia, and in 1923 she met and married a man named Jack Gee. That same year, she was discovered by a representative from Columbia Records, with whom she signed a contract and made her first song recordings. Among them was a track titled “Downhearted Blues,” which was wildly popular and sold an estimated 800,000 copies, propelling Smith into the blues spotlight. With her rich, powerful voice, Smith soon became a successful recording artist and toured extensively. To circumvent the prejudicial treatment that she and her traveling troupe sometimes endured, Smith eventually bought a custom railroad car for them to travel and sleep in.

In her recording career, Bessie Smith worked with many important jazz performers, such as saxophonist Sidney Bechet and pianists Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson. With Johnson, she recorded one of her most famous songs, “Backwater Blues.” Smith also collaborated with the legendary jazz artist Louis Armstrong on several tunes, including “Cold in Hand Blues” and “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.” By the end of the 1920s, Smith was the highest-paid black performer of her day, and had earned herself the title “Empress of the Blues.”

Decline and Revival

However, at the height of her success, Bessie Smith’s career began to flounder, due in part to the financial ravages of the Great Depression and her increasingly serious alcoholism. In 1929 she and Jack Gee permanently separated, and by the end of 1931 Smith had stopped working with Columbia altogether. However, ever the dedicated performer, Smith adapted her repertoire and continued to tour.

In 1933, Smith was brought back from semi-obscurity by producer John Hammond, who contracted her to make new recordings backed by a band that included jazz legend Benny Goodman. The recordings hint at the coming Swing Era and mark Smith’s return to the spotlight.

Death and Legacy

Over the next few years, Smith continued to tour, hoping to recapture her earlier success and to take advantage of the growing popularity of swing. However, on September 26, 1937, Smith was en route to a performance in Memphis, Tennessee with her companion of many years, Richard Morgan, when he sideswiped a truck and lost control of their car. Smith was thrown from the vehicle and badly injured. She was reportedly refused treatment at a “whites only” hospital before being taken to one that would treat blacks. It was there that she died of her wounds. She was 43.

Smith’s funeral was held in Philadelphia a week later, with thousands coming to pay their respects. She was buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.

Since her death, Bessie Smith’s music continues to win over new fans, and collections of her songs have continued to sell extremely well over the years. She has been a primary influence of countless female vocalists—including Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin—and has been immortalized in numerous works, including Edward Albee’s 1961 play The Death of Bessie Smith.

— original source: http://www.biography.com

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