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Bessie Smith was the greatest blues singer of all time; and her influence still permeates popular music though almost no one listens to her records. An appreciation by an eminent jazz singer.
November 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 7
She avoided the problem of monotony in the classic twelve-bar blues structure (the same line twice, then a rhyming line) by varying the way she sang the repeated first line, emphasizing a different word or playing with the rhythm to create interest and suspense. In her judicious use of original vocal effects (moans, slides, growls, split vowels) and in the interpretive choices she made, she revealed the inventiveness and impeccable taste of a great artist. A good example is in “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” when she launches into the final chorus not by singing out but by singing in, lowering her huge voice to a soft hum. It’s the saddest and most moving humming I’ve ever heard, and the record, one of her best, is still the definitive version of that song.
She also knew the value of singing a comedy lyric straight instead of hamming it up; she’s hilarious in her deadpan delivery of songs like “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair,” “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon,” “Mean Old Bed Bug Blues,” and “I Got What It Takes (But It Breaks My Heart to Give It Away).” Her best musicians shared her subtle sense of humor; Charlie Green, Joe Smith, and the young Louis Armstrong reveal the same sly wit in their accompaniments. When she didn’t have a responsive musical partner, she acted as her own accompanist, filling in between the written lines with additional words or phrases to keep the song moving. She kept drums off all her records, saying, “I don’t want no drums—I set my own beat.”
Her place in the history of blues and jazz is undisputed. Her recordings are meticulously catalogued, and no work on jazz, blues, or pop singing history fails to acknowledge her seminal contribution to the sound and substance of vocal music.
There are books with technical analyses of her vocal strengths (a big, mellow voice, an instantly recognizable sound) and weaknesses (a small range, a lack of harmonic sophistication) and detailed diagrams of her phrasing on specific songs. But only one book gives a feeling for Bessie as a human being.
Bessie: Empress of the Blues , by Chris Albertson, published in 1972 and still in print, is one of the most carefully researched and best-written books ever about any blues or jazz artist. Albertson, a Dane, seems to have been fated to become the leading authority on Bessie. As a boy in Copenhagen he found himself drawn to her singing before he could even understand English. He quickly became a knowledgeable jazz fan and immigrated to this country in 1957, as soon as he had the then-required minimum of seventy-five dollars in his pocket. Since the mid-1960s he has been a jazz critic and writer.
Albertson long wished for a comprehensive book about Bessie’s life and work without thinking he might end up writing it himself. Few people who knew her were still alive, all her sisters had died, and her spurned husband, a notoriously unreliable source anyway, demanded a million dollars for an interview. Then Albertson chanced to meet the person who had known her best, her niece Ruby, who had performed in Bessie’s troupe and was her companion and confidante until her death. Ruby’s descriptions of life with Bessie were so lucid and her memories so clear that Albertson decided to take on the project. He also wrote the Grammy-winning liner notes for the 1970 reissues of her complete work on Columbia Records and for the current five-volume set of CDs. Most of my information on Bessie’s life comes from his book, his liner notes, and my interviews with him.
Bessie was born on april 15, probably in 1894, in the Blue Goose Hollow section of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her father was a laborer and part-time Baptist minister who died so young that Bessie had no memory of him. A brother died before she was born, and her mother and another brother perished before she was ten. She lived in what she later described as a “ramshackle cabin” with her surviving five brothers and sisters, raised by the eldest, Viola. Impoverished, uneducated blacks had three ways to survive at that time: manual labor, servitude, or, for those with a little talent and a spirit of adventure, show business. Her brother Clarence joined a show as a dancer and comedian, and at the age of nine Bessie began to sing in the street for small change, accompanied on the guitar by her other brother, Andrew. When Clarence’s show came to Chattanooga in 1912, he arranged an audition for his little sister, and she was taken on as a dancer. The troupe included Gertrude (“Ma”) Rainey, who became known as the Mother of the Blues and is considered an early link between male country blues singers and female “classic blues” singers. As Bessie’s very different style shows, Ma didn’t teach her to sing. But she was a mother figure to the girl, and they remained on good terms all their lives.
Information about Bessie’s career before she began recording is scant, but we know that in 1913 the actor-theater manager Leigh Whipper (who hired her twelve years later at the Newark Orpheum) saw her singing at the “81” Theatre in Atlanta: “She was just a teenager, and she obviously didn’t know the artist she was. She didn’t know how to dress—she just sang in her street clothes—but she was such a natural that she could wreck anyone’s show.” Before long she broke into the main black vaudeville circuit, the TOBA (Theater Owners’ Booking Association).