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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
Bessie was coming up in the black entertainment world at a propitious time. World War I was ending, and a relieved public began to relax with illegal liquor and new music, urban blues and hot jazz. They were a growing audience for performers like Bessie, and she began to tour regularly as a single or with her own show, playing not just the South but Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City.
By the early 1920s black composers had been writing hit songs for several years. One of them, Perry Bradford, finally persuaded a small company, Okeh Records, to record a black singer for the first time. Two of Bradford’s songs sung by Mamie Smith had some success, so he talked the company into letting her do a blues. The result, the first vocal blues record ever, “Crazy Blues” sold a hundred thousand copies in a month. Larger companies were quick to form “race” record divisions.
For two years Bessie failed to get a contract while less talented performers with a less “black” sound flourished. Okeh Records and the first black-owned company, Black Swan, both rejected her. By now she was living in Philadelphia, where she fell in love with a tall, handsome night watchman named Jack Gee. A black songwriter-pianist, Clarence Williams, arranged a February 1923 audition for her with the head of race records at Columbia, Frank Walker. Walker signed her, and Williams negotiated her contract.
Bessie misbehaved. Jack caught her at it, and she’d buy him an expensive present. That was their pattern.
In what some have called his last act of generosity, Jack Gee pawned his uniform and watch to buy Bessie a new dress for her recording debut in New York. They stayed with his mother in Harlem.
Like all performers in the early years of the recording industry, Bessie had to sing into a cone-shaped horn stuck through a hole in a draped wall. An engineer behind the wall recorded her onto a wax disk that then had to be plated at a factory before it could be heard. Since nothing could be played back, Bessie had to do repeated takes until someone decided one was good enough. Not until the second day did they manage to get “Down Hearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues” recorded.
After four more recordings Gee and Bessie discovered that her contract had been drawn up not with Columbia but with Clarence Williams, entitling him to pocket half her $125-per-song fee. They burst into his office and beat him until he tore up the contract, then headed over to Walker at Columbia to get better terms. Walker guaranteed her $1,500 for the year but shrewdly crossed out the royalty clause.
Alberta Hunter had recorded “Down Hearted Blues” and done well with it the year before, but Bessie’s version did far better, selling 780,000 copies within six months. Because Williams accompanied her and wrote the B-side song, he made more money on it than she did. Despite their feud they recorded six more songs together, including “—T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do” and a wonderfully plaintive version of “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.”
Bessie, who had been briefly married before, married Gee in June 1923. Too busy for a honeymoon, she recorded seven more songs, accompanied this time by Fletcher Henderson, and then took off for a tour of the South. Costumed in a plain dress with a shawl, a wig, and a beaded cloche, she performed in front of a painted backdrop depicting magnolia trees, a moon, and an orange sky. Her performances in Atlanta and Birmingham drew record-breaking crowds and thunderous applause. Two of them were broadcast on radio. Theater offers came pouring in, and her fee shot up to $350 a week.
Her husband, still working in Philadelphia, joined her when she played Atlanta again and tried to assert his authority over her, claiming he was her manager, though Frank Walker ran her New York recording sessions and her brother Clarence and nephew Teejay handled all her business on the road. Clarence’s wife, Maud, a dancer with the troupe, said: “Jack couldn’t even manage himself.... He could count money and he could ask for money, but that’s about it.”
Bessie’s career was taking off. By the end of the first year of her contract she had made twenty-nine records. Suddenly Columbia’s biggest moneymaker, she signed a new, far more lucrative contract—fifteen hundred dollars a week for an expanded show with more elaborate sets and a bigger cast.
Throughout her career Bessie was notorious for paying low wages to her troupe no matter how much she made, but off the job she had a reputation as a soft touch, taking care of performers’ medical bills, bailing people out of jail, giving handouts to beggars, and buying gifts and clothes for family and friends. “She’d buy expensive suits for Jack and she got herself some fur coats and jewelry—real diamonds,” her niece Ruby told Albertson, but “at home she was still the same old Bessie, slopping around in her slippers, her hair flying all over the place, and cooking up a lot of greasy food.”