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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
Her movie was shown often between 1929 and 1932. In the 1950s well-meaning liberals tried to have it destroyed.
In January 1925 she recorded with the stunningly talented young Louis Armstrong, and their rapport is extraordinary. The records they made —“St. Louis Blues,” “Reckless Blues,” “Sobbin Hearted Blues,” “Cold in Hand Blues,” and “You’ve Been a Good Ole Wagon”—are among her very best. In a Voice of America broadcast that Armstrong recorded late in his life, he played Bessie’s “St. Louis Blues” and praised her artistry. He recalled that at that session he had needed to break the first hundred-dollar bill he’d ever received. Bessie promptly lifted up her skirt and took wadded bills out of little pockets in a carpenter’s apron full of cash, her wearable bank.
Her next session, in May 1925, produced a breakthrough record. A new recording technique, the electrical method, was being used for the first time that day. Now Bessie could sing into a microphone, with a greater number of musicians accompanying her—in this case, a six-piece band. A tent was hung over them to improve the acoustics. The very first song they did, “Cake Walking Babies,” has a clarity and vibrancy never heard before on Bessie’s records; on CD it jumps out from the previous tracks like the sun bursting through the clouds.
Bessie began re-hearsals on a new tent show, the Harlem Frolics . In June she left on tour, traveling in a gleaming private railroad car that her brother Clarence had persuaded her to buy. Bright yellow, it was seventy-eight feet long and two stories high and had seven state-rooms, a kitchen, and a lower level that could hold thirty-five people. When they arrived at a stop, the crew would set up the tent and then settle down on the grass to eat a dinner prepared in the kitchen, often by Bessie herself. After the meal the band members put on their red jackets and marched through the town playing Bessie’s hits. By the time they got back to the tent they’d have a crowd of customers in tow. Though the coach was crowded, the troupe preferred staying in it to searching for decent accommodations in Southern towns, and it paid for itself after just one season.
The Chicago Defender published an article in 1925 predicting a bleak future for female blues singers, but Bessie continued to prosper. Her personal life wasn’t going as well. She was drinking heavily and acting irresponsible, breaking contracts and stranding her troupe with increasing frequency. Jack now appeared on her tours only to ask for money. In what may have been a last effort to turn her home life around she had the railroad car stop in Macon, Georgia, to pick up a little boy— a relative of one of her chorus girls— whom she had met there a few years earlier and occasionally visited. Back in Philadelphia she and Jack adopted him, naming him Jack Gee, Jr. Her friends and relatives were amazed to see her suddenly become a mother, but she embraced the role. For years she took Jack Jr. along on all her tours.
She now wanted to complete the family by moving her sisters up from Chattanooga to live with her. Jack protested, but she won him over by spending five thousand dollars in cash for a new custom Cadillac he admired in a show window. She rented two houses, for Viola and her husband, children, and grandchildren, and for her third sister, Lulu—ignoring Jack’s protests that her family drank too much and took advantage of her. He was further humiliated when she started sending all her tour money home to Viola.
Her May 1926 records— “Money Blues,” “Baby Doll,” “Hard Driving Papa,” and “Lost Your Head Blues”—show her in excellent form. They sold fifty-three thousand copies, a huge drop from her earlier hits but still impressive. She exploded at Ruby for trying to get herself recorded at Bessie’s studio, but she couldn’t stay angry, and they went right out to paint the town. As Ruby told it, “We’d walk into a joint and Bessie would say, ‘Here’s a hundred dollars. Set the house up and don’t let nobody out and nobody in.’ . . . she enjoyed getting everybody drunk with her.”
By this time Jack Gee knew about Bessie’s infidelities and had committed some of his own. Now he found out that she was cheating on him not only with men but with women. During one of his surprise visits to the show, in Detroit, Jack caught Bessie with a chorus girl. Bessie fled to New York—and a recording session where she got another chance to work with a musician of her caliber, the superb Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson, the best accompanist she ever had. They recorded two songs she had just written, “Back Water Blues” and “Preachin’ the Blues.”
When she finally headed home to face Jack, she found that he had left for Hot Springs, Arkansas, telling people he needed to recuperate from a “nervous breakdown.” Concerned, she went there and paid for his stay, and they made up once again. The trip inspired her to write “Hot Springs Blues” for her next session, when she also made especially good versions of four pop standards still done today: “After You’ve Gone,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Muddy Water,” and, with what sounds like her personal guarantee on it, “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”