Bessie Smith: Black Bottom Beauty




Born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, TN to Laura and William Smith, both of Bessie’s parents died while she was young and her older sister became responsible for raising Bessie and her other siblings.

Bessie and her brother Andrew became street performers in order to help bring money into the household. She sang and danced while he played the guitar.

In 1912, she was hired on as a dancer for the Stokes traveling troupe, where she met her future mentor, singer Ma Rainey. Smith eventually moved on to performing in various chorus lines, making the “81” Theater in Atlanta her home base. There were times when she worked in shows on the black-owned T.O.B.A (Theater Owners Booking Association) circuit.

She began perfecting her act in 1913 but did not secure a record deal until 1923 (with Columbia Records). She was living in Philadelphia at the time.

Bessie met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was released. During the marriage—a stormy one, with infidelity on both sides (including Bessie’s relationships with women)—Smith became the highest paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own railroad car. The couple eventually went their separate ways but did not obtain a divorce.

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

When the days of vaudeville shows were over in the late 1920s, Smith continued touring and occasionally singing in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway 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 1933, John Hammond, who also mentored Billie Holiday, asked Smith to record four sides for Okeh (which had been acquired by Columbia Records in 1925). Made on 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.”

On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. 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.

Bessie Smith was taken to Clarksdale’s G. T. Thomas 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 Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital, you can forget that,” said Dr. Hugh Smith, who was the first to arrive at the accident scene. “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 Philadelphia a little over a week later on October 4, 1937. Newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970 when a tombstone—paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith—was erected.

In 1980, Bessie was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. She also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.

In 1994, Bessie was honored with a U.S. postage stamp.

Three of Bessie’s recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame: “Downhearted Blues” (1923), “St. Louis Blues” (1925), and “Empty Bed Blues” (1928).

“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 Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock ‘n’ roll. The song was also included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, in 2002.

Among numerous stories written about her life, she was included in Angela Davis’ book, “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday,” published in 1998.

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