Back To Bessie

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She was to become better known for how she had supposedly died than for anything she did while she was alive.

As time passed and no ambulance came, Dr. Smith decided they should take Bessie to the hospital themselves. (He had no idea who she was and didn’t find out until years later.) He and Broughton were moving the last of their fishing gear from the back seat when a car came up behind them fast and crashed into theirs, driving it into the back of Bessie’s wrecked Packard. The third car’s occupants, a young white couple who had been drinking, both were injured. As Dr. Smith was examining them, an ambulance with a black driver, the one summoned by Broughton, arrived and took away Bessie and Richard Morgan, who was unhurt. Then an ambulance with a white driver pulled up. Sent by the truck driver who had left the scene, it took the injured couple.

Dr. Smith insisted that a black ambulance driver would have taken any injured black person straight to the black hospital (Clarksdale had segregated hospitals half a mile apart). The ambulance driver, interviewed twenty years later, confirmed that he had done just that. Both Clarksdale facilities were small country hospitals with only the most basic equipment, according to Dr. Smith. Even with the improved technology available in the 1940s, when he was interviewed, the doctor believed that Bessie Smith would have had only a fifty-fifty chance to live. She would have lost her right arm and could never have sung again.

The folklore scholar John Lomax, who looked into the case in 1941, received a letter from the black doctor who treated Bessie, W. H. Brandon. He confirmed what was by then known to be the truth about Bessie’s death. Richard Morgan, the only person who knew the whole story, was never interviewed about the incident. “He used to talk about Bessie, and he’d start crying. . . . He was never the same after she died,” Maud told Albertson.

A spectacular funeral was held in Philadelphia. The Chicago Defender wrote: “Bessie Smith was dressed in a gorgeous flesh lace gown with pink slippers. She rested in an expensive open silver metallic casket trimmed in gold and draped in two-tone lining.” Major black stars and Bessie’s former promoters were conspicuous in their absence, but a few local show people, some of her chorus girls, and hordes of weeping fans attended. A devastated Richard Morgan sat quietly on the sidelines while Jack Gee seized the limelight. The coffin was carried outside through a crowd of seven thousand, through South Philadelphia and Bessie’s old neighborhood, and to Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill.

The grave remained unmarked for thirty-three years. Benefits held in both the 1940s and the 1950s raised enough money for a tombstone, but the proceeds, given to Jack Gee, disappeared. Gee, who received composers’ royalties on Bessie’s songs as other artists recorded them through the years, could easily have afforded a stone himself.

Twenty-seven years ago newspapers reported that the rock singer Janis Joplin had single-handedly done the deed at last. Joplin, who once said Bessie’s singing “showed me the air and taught me how to fill it,” actually paid half the cost. The other half was given by a woman named Juanita Green, who as a little girl hoping for a performing career had met Bessie when she coached children in a Harlem theater. After hearing Green sing, Bessie asked, “Is you in school?” Green nodded. “Good,” said Bessie. “You better stay there, ‘cause you can’t sing a note.” Years later Green, at fourteen, showed her reverence for Bessie by turning up to scrub her kitchen floor every Saturday, and Bessie often rewarded her by cooking her a batch of fried chitterlings and scallions. Green did stay in school and grew up to become a nurse, a nursing-home owner, and an officer in the Philadelphia NAACP.

In 1970 Columbia brought out Bessie’s complete recorded work on five double albums. Expertly marketed to the younger generation at a time when rock and pop stars including Joplin, Cass Elliott of The Mamas and the Papas (who called Bessie “the first soul singer”), Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles were citing the strong influence of early blues artists on their own work, the series sold two hundred thousand double albums and won two Grammys.

Today Bessie’s entire output is available in five chronologically organized boxed sets, each with two CDs and a generously illustrated information booklet. And yet, sadly, her music is listened to much less now than it was twenty years ago. Albertson thinks this is because the musical tastes of young people have changed so much. Rock ’n’ roll in the 1960s and 1970s generated interest in older blues artists because it was audibly linked to the blues, unlike today’s hugely popular sound, rap.