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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
Billie Holiday made me want to listen to Bessie Smith. I heard my first Billie Holiday record when I was studying in Paris in 1969, and I immediately became obsessed with her songs, her singing, and her life. When I read that Bessie Smith was one of got hold of by the woman who is called the Empress of the Blues.
Billie Holiday made me want to listen to Bessie Smith. I heard my first Billie Holiday record when I was studying in Paris in 1969, and I immediately became obsessed with her songs, her singing, and her life. When I read that Bessie Smith was one of got hold of by the woman who is called the Empress of the Blues.
I couldn’t understand at first what Billie thought she’d learned from Bessie. Bessie’s sound was certainly impressive; she had a big rich voice compared with Billie’s small, rough one. Both women had great presence, that special quality of seeming to be right there in the room singing to you, but while Billie crept up on you, Bessie came at you full throttle. Bessie’s earthbound songs of longing for love, sex, money, revenge, home, and better times seemed barren and monotonous to me next to the romantic and sophisticated ones Billie recorded just fifteen years later, and Billie’s band swung while Bessie’s plodded. I understood that Bessie was a key artist in the development of jazz singing; I just didn’t respond to her music.
Her voice was huge, but her use or it was remarkably nimble, her timing dynamic, her phrasing full of surprises.
Billie had made me want to do more than just listen to other singers. She made me want to become one myself. My experience consisted of six years in school choirs, two roles in civic theater musicals, and a few weeks of singing her songs on long, solitary walks through the parks of Paris. I waited for this crazy desire to fade, but it wouldn’t.
I moved to Rome, rented a room, and made the rounds of the seedy little nightclubs near the Via Veneto. I introduced myself as an American singer available for bookings, but the street-wise club owners and musicians just smiled, shook their heads, and told me I shouldn’t be out alone at night. Discouraged, I eked out a living as a translator and teacher.
Through one of my students I met a well-known Italian jazz musician who had been inspired by the records of Sidney Bechet to take up the soprano saxophone. He didn’t find it at all strange that Billie Holiday had made me want to be a singer, but he insisted that if I were really serious, I would need a thorough foundation in blues and jazz, starting with the first great singer, Bessie Smith. In the dead of the Roman winter, I went back to Bessie.
In paris I had been a student, but in rome I was just another young foreign woman living alone. Italians were both friendlier and nosier than the French, and people often asked me what I was doing there. I had begun to wonder myself. Words in Bessie’s songs that had meant nothing to me the year before were great comfort and inspiration to me now. “I’m a young woman, and ain’t done runnin’ ’round,” she sang somberly in “Young Woman’s Blues,” the song of hers that first broke through to me. “Some people call me a hobo / some call me a bum. Nobody knows my name / nobody knows what I’ve done / I’m as good as any woman in your town.” Pride, sorrow, and hope rang out in her mighty voice—and in my own heart—as she concluded, “See that long, lonesome road / Lord, you know, it’s got ta end / and I’m a good woman / and I can get plenty men.”
Once I identified with her as a woman, I became interested in the life she lived and sang about: poverty and hard labor (“Work Horse Blues”), prison (“Jail House Blues”), homesickness (“Muddy Water [a Mississippi Moan]”), catastrophic floods (“Backwater Blues”), sexual betrayal (“St. Louis Blues”), gambling (“Follow the Deal on Down”), disillusionment (“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”), despair (“Wasted Life Blues”), and hard-drinking good times (“Gimme a Pigfoot [and a Bottle of Beer]”). I believed I had finally discovered what Billie learned from her: honesty, directness, a refusal to be anything or anyone but who she was. I came to love Bessie Smith not just for her sandblaster sound and aggressively honest music but for being the vibrant, unrepentant woman who came charging off the spinning vinyl to claim a permanent place in my life.
It was only when I tried to imitate her that I realized how complex her “simple” singing was. If her voice was huge and heavy, her use of it was remarkably nimble. Her timing was solid, dynamic, and exciting, no matter how little rhythmic support she got from her musicians. Her phrasing was full of surprises, some words compressed, others tantalizingly strung out. She took oddly placed— and oddly effective—little breaths and pauses before a word or even just a syllable, sometimes for narrative emphasis, sometimes because she seemed to savor the sound itself. She would twist out an evocative word for up to six notes to dramatize it: home, hate, long, alone . There was honest heartbreak in those vowels.
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).
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.”
When she drank, she drank too much, but she was a binge drinker who stayed sober for weeks at a time. She favored homemade corn liquor. “She was liking the bad stuff even when the good stuff was in,” Ruby said. “She didn’t trust anything with a seal on it.” Annoyed by her drinking, Jack made efforts to tour with her, punishing her carousing with scoldings and beatings.
Drunk or sober, she had a terrible temper. She would plunge into full-pitched verbal and physical battle with anyone—theater managers, chorus girls, total strangers—at the slightest provocation. She and Jack were a poor match. As Ruby said, “She was a strong woman with a beautiful constitution, and she loved a good time. Tack was so conservative.”
By 1924 race-record sales were slipping, but Bessie’s still sold well. Every couple of months she went to New York to record a few songs, usually blues, with piano or small-band accompaniment. Many of her classic twelve-bar blues have promising titles but little else to offer besides her fine singing. I realize that not every listener shares my need to hear a song that’s about something, but I believe Bessie did. I find the blues lyrics she herself wrote to be some of her most evocative and satisfying. Her best were inspired by her own experiences. She certainly spent enough nights behind bars for public drunkenness and brawls in dives and hotel rooms to write “Jail House Blues.” In it she gives a vivid picture of long days in prison, leavening her tale of woe with a sense of humor as she warns the warden: “You better stop your man from ticklin’ me under my chin /. . . ’cause if he keeps on ticklin’, I’m sure gonna take him on in.”
“Back Water Blues” was written after Bessie and Ruby had spent a night on tour in a building full of flood victims who begged her to sing about their plight. “Young Woman’s Blues,” “Thinking Blues,” and “Long Old Road” express and resolve her own periods of loneliness and despair with strong images and deeply moving lyrics.
In at least one song she was way ahead of her time. Albertson showed me a photocopy of an unrecorded blues lyric in her handwriting with the chorus “My hair is kinky, but my man don’t care / Any man’s a fool to want a woman for her hair.” It’s a very strong expression of racial pride for that era, and consistent with Bessie’s personality. She despised black people who tried to look or act “white” and she ridiculed the prevailing practice of hiring only light-skinned chorus girls.
Bessie knew other eminent blues singers of her day and was on good terms with most of them. She used their songs, but she seems to have been utterly uninterested in their performances. She seldom bought a record and never went to shows; she had the best voice, sold the most records, and drew the biggest crowds, and she apparently didn’t feel she had anything to learn from anyone.
In April 1924 she and her husband again stayed in Harlem with his mother while she recorded, and it was there that she became friendly with Ruby, Jack’s niece, who was twenty. Dazzled by Bessie’s success, Ruby wangled her way into the troupe. She learned the chorus girls’ routines from her aunt and helped her change in and out of her elaborate new gowns and headdresses between numbers.
Bessie was working hard and playing hard. If she was in a partying mood, she’d take Ruby out on the town. “I don’t know how that woman knew so many joints,” Ruby said. “We did everything we were big enough to do.” Sometimes Jack showed up, caught her, and beat her, but the moment he left she was off again. In Ruby’s words, “We did that all the time we was on the road—runnin’ from Jack.”
Bessie’s appetite for liquor wasn’t all she indulged. She began an affair with Agie Pitts, a teenage dancer in her show. (Ruby explained that Bessie chose young men because “they were the only ones who could keep up with her.”) Once Bessie found Ruby and Agie sitting alone in a dressing room. She flew into a jealous rage and beat her niece till Ruby’s screams brought the police. All three were arrested. “A night in jail was nothing to us,” Ruby told Albertson.
After the tour Bessie returned to Jack in Philadelphia, easing her conscience by buying him a two-thousand-dollar diamond ring. For years this was their pattern: Bessie would misbehave, Jack would catch her at it, she’d end up buying him an expensive present, and all would then be peaceful until the cycle began again.
That summer Bessie finally got to work with two accompanists who enhanced her music instead of encumbering it, the trombonist Charlie Green and the cornetist Joe Smith. When I commented to Albertson that never before or since had an artist of such greatness made so many records with such mediocre musicians, he readily agreed. “She had better bands on the road than in the studio,” he said. He believes she was probably so overworked that she simply let Frank Walker take care of all the recording details. Since the records he produced were hits, maybe she even thought he knew best.
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.”
The release of “Back Water Blues” just as catastrophic floods struck along the Mississippi helped make it a huge hit on her next tour, through North Carolina during the 1927 tent season. She was in peak form during that tour, strong, hard-working, and sober. In Concord a terrified band member told her during her performance that hooded men from the Ku Klux Klan were outside trying to collapse the tent. According to witnesses, Bessie went out and faced down a dozen Klansmen herself, cursing them until they walked away. She then strode back in to finish the show.
The revue that had met such enthusiasm in the South was less well received when she took it to the Grand Theater in Chicago. The big-city black public was no longer amused by the broad humor and racial stereotypes of black vaudeville. Bessie’s reception in Chicago was disappointing, but her show sold out in smaller Midwestern cities. Public tastes might change, but her commanding presence and awesome talent had never failed her yet.
There are no detailed written accounts of her live performances, but people who saw her have said that she was a versatile artist who often stretched her songs to fifteen or twenty minutes, displaying her ability not only as a singer but as an actress, comedienne, dancer, and mime. Instead of doing her own tent show in 1928, she played the sagging TOBA theater circuit. Her tour made a good profit, and the TOBA board decided to advance her three thousand dollars to mount two new shows for them. Believing Jack’s claim that he was her manager, they gave her money to him. Then, after five years of marital cat-and-mouse games, Jack at last committed an act of betrayal impossible to forgive.
He became involved with a singer named Gertrude Saunders and put up part of Bessie’s TOBA money to finance a show starring his new girlfriend. Bessie heard the news in a bar, fled, and broke down and wept in her hotel room. “That’s the first and the last time I ever seen Bessie cry like that,” Ruby said. After her performance that night, still wearing her feathered gown over her ever-present carpenter’s apron full of cash, Bessie grabbed Ruby and took a cab to Columbus, Ohio, where the Gertrude Saunders show was playing.
She located Jack and Gertrude’s hotel and burst into their room. Gertrude had the good fortune to be out. Bessie fought violently with Jack, wrecked the room, and emerged covered with blood and feathers to take the cab straight back to Detroit. The marriage was over.
Bessie was sleepless and depressed after the breakup, but important developments in her career soon distracted her. She was offered a starring role in a Broadway show, a miraculous break for a black performer. Though drama critics praised her own performance in Pansy, which opened on May 14, 1929, they unanimously panned the play. Brooks Atkinson called it “the worst show of all time.” The day his review came out Bessie dragged herself to the studio to record her deeply felt version of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”
She quickly bounced back from the flop, accepting W. C. Handy’s offer to play the lead in a short movie based on a song of his that she had made her own, “St. Louis Blues.” The seventeen-minute film was shot in Astoria, Queens, just weeks after Pansy had closed. Bessie plays a woman driven to drink by her cheating lover. She catches him with a young woman in a room in a gambling house, throws the woman out, gets knocked down by her boyfriend, grabs a bottle of liquor, takes a swig, and sings a verse a cappella . James P. Johnson joins in on piano, and the scene shifts to a smoky nightclub. Bessie leans on the bar and sings into her drink, accompanied now by a large choir, a jazz band, and strings. Her boyfriend shows up, and, elated just to be with him again, she dances with him, oblivious as he slips her bankroll out of her stocking top. Once he’s got her money, he shoves her away and struts off. Back at the bar she stares into her drink and ends the song.
The film was shown often between 1929 and 1932. It seems then to have been forgotten until 1950, when a group of well-meaning white liberals petitioned the NAACP to destroy it because of its portrayal of blacks as lowlifes. Fortunately it survived—the only existing footage of one of the greatest performers of our century.
By the summer the film was made, most theaters had had sound projectors installed. The writing was on the wall for all vaudeville, and the TOBA was on the verge of collapse. The stock market crashed, but to people like Bessie it didn’t seem important right away. Talking pictures were a much bigger worry.
In the early 1930s theaters she had once filled were closing down, and after nine years Columbia dropped her.
As it became clear that vaudeville was on its way out, white performers looked to Hollywood and radio for work, but those doors were still closed to blacks. Bessie kept going, but her theater fee had dropped by 50 percent. She sold the railroad car, gave up her elaborate costumes and wigs, and began dressing in simple long gowns, her hair pulled back tightly from her face. She was forced to reduce her sisters’ allowances, and the women, who drank heavily and fought constantly, began to express resentment toward her.
Everyone who had once been close to her was drifting away. Ruby, threatened by Jack, left Bessie’s troupe for the Gertrude Saunders show. Worst of all, Jack, in what could only have been an act of vengeance, put Jack, Jr., in a children’s home while Bessie was away.
The Depression was affecting everybody now. When the TOBA disintegrated, Bessie’s brother Clarence courageously took it upon himself to set up an extensive independent tour. Frank Walker at Columbia gave him a little help, but Bessie’s star was falling there too. Her new records were released in ever-decreasing quantities, and she took a substantial pay cut on her contract.
In a departure from her usual repertoire, she recorded two quasi-religious songs with James P. Johnson and the Bessemer Singers, “On Revival Day” and “Moan You Mourners.” Some critics scoff at these tracks, but in view of her preacher-father, I don’t find them such surprising choices, and she does them with great energy and fervor. Despite her decidedly secular way of life, she considered herself a religious woman. If her tour got into a town early enough on Sunday morning, she’d always go to church services. Zutty Singleton, her drummer in New Orleans, described her as “real close to God, very religious. . . . She always mentioned the Lord’s name. That’s why her blues seemed almost like hymns.”
She had a profound influence on one of the greatest singers of religious music. Mahalia Jackson, who disapproved of Bessie’s hedonism and blatantly sexual numbers, felt constrained to hide her admiration until late in her life. “Bessie was my favorite, but I never let people know I listened to her,” she admitted. “Mamie Smith, the other famous blues singer, had a prettier voice, but Bessie’s had more soul in it. She dug right down and kept it in you. Her music haunted you even when she stopped singing.”
On the first leg of the new tour, Bessie and her troupe stayed in Chicago, where she looked up a long-time friend, a jazz-loving, party-giving bootlegger named Richard Morgan. Within a few days he and Bessie fell in love. He became not just her man but her manager, and suddenly she was happier than she had been in years.
“Richard was everything that Jack should have been,” her sister-in-law Maud remembered. “They got along very well, they both loved a good time, and they respected each other. Richard was very jovial when he’d had a few drinks, but he never got nasty. . . . He was a good businessman. . . . Also, he was tall and handsome, a real sharp dresser. He was perfect for Bessie.”
This new happiness couldn’t have come at a better time. Her peak earning years were over. Theaters she had once filled were closing down, and after nine years Columbia dropped her. But she still pulled in big, enthusiastic audiences in the South. And when she couldn’t keep up her expenses, Richard helped her out. She seemed to have found peace and comfort with Morgan, who by all accounts was the love of her life.
Around this time John Hammond, an independently wealthy young jazz fan, decided she should be recorded again even if he had to pay for it himself. In November 1933 he got her back into a New York studio with an integrated band of excellent jazz musicians, including Frankie Newton, Jack Teagarden, and Chu Berry. She refused to do blues, choosing instead four upbeat pop songs. Bessie sounds better than ever on these sessions, and it’s a treat to hear her enjoy herself with a swinging band and great soloists. The very next artist to record in that room was another singer Hammond liked, Billie Holiday, then just eighteen.
Still drawing well in some cities, Bessie now tried to keep up with the times by concentrating on pop songs. I laughed when I read that she sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Tea for Two,” but then I remembered what beautiful versions of Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen standards were done by a later artist rooted in the blues, Ray Charles. It would be fascinating to hear what she brought to the new, more sophisticated songs of the 1930s, but she never recorded them.
Bessie’s next tour didn’t make money even in the South. Before, she had blamed poor turnout on the Depression; now she feared that she was losing her following. Still, she made the best of any breaks. She stepped in for Louis Armstrong after he canceled at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and when Billie Holiday got sick and couldn’t play a date at Connie’s on Forty-eighth Street, Bessie replaced her, singing the latest songs with a swing band to a stylish midtown crowd. Word of her success with the new swing sound spread, more bookings came in, and things started looking up again.
She got a spot in a touring show and took to the road with Richard Morgan, who drove her used Packard. The show ended a successful run in Memphis on Saturday night, September 26, 1937, and Bessie, feeling restless, wanted to move on right away. Richard didn’t. They argued about it. When Bessie threatened to get someone else to drive her, he gave in. They left at 1:00 A.M. and traveled in strained silence for seventy-five miles on a straight dark stretch of road. Richard spotted the lights of a truck ahead, but by the time he realized it was crawling along at only a few miles an hour, it was too late. He swerved left but still hit the rear corner of the truck, with maximum impact on the Packard’s right door, where Bessie sat. The truck vanished into the night; Bessie’s right arm was nearly cut off and her side crushed. Bleeding profusely, she went into shock. She died in a Clarksdale, Mississippi, hospital at 11:30 on Sunday morning.
The associated press ran a brief report, and though it was full of mistakes, the white press through all her years of sold-out shows and hit records had never given her more space. Longer stories in the black papers were also inaccurate. But it was a music trade magazine that first printed the story that was to make her better known for her death than for her life.
John Hammond wrote an article in Down Beat titled “Did Bessie Smith Bleed to Death While Waiting for Medical Aid?” He reported having heard that “when finally she did arrive at the hospital she was refused treatment because of her color and bled to death while waiting for attention.” He admitted that the account could have been exaggerated, but the damage was done.
Jack Gee, Jr., and the liberal press jumped on the story and kept it alive, he for personal reasons, the press for political ones. A subsequent Down Beat story gave the correct information that Bessie had actually been taken directly to the black hospital in Clarksdale and had died from loss of blood, but the myth lived on.
The magazine made another attempt to rectify the error in the early 1940s, running an interview with the first person on the scene of the accident, a white doctor named Hugh Smith. Dr. Smith’s account was given again in 1969 in Esquire , but neither piece registered with the public. In 1960 Edward Albee’s play The Death of Bessie Smith expanded and spread the myth, and in 1970 Time magazine ran a piece titled “Racially Rationed Health,” which opened by citing the medical treatment of Bessie Smith in a sentence containing three erroneous details: “After her black Samaritan driver  had been turned away from white hospitals , she at last reached a hospital that was willing to admit her . . . dead on arrival .”
The persistence of the legend of her “disgraceful” death long after the truth was documented is a social phenomenon worth a study of its own. Americans—including ardent vocal music fans and reputable journalists—still seem to want and need to feel both collective shame and individual superiority as they blame Bessie’s death not on a highway accident but on the racism of an earlier generation.
Albertson’s book clears up the matter with a detailed account of the accident and its aftermath. The truck driver, afraid that his tires had overheated, had pulled over to have a look at them. He had just started moving again when Bessie and Richard’s car hit him. The Packard ricocheted backward and onto its left side. The truck drove off.
Dr. Smith and his friend Henry Broughton, who had just set out on a fishing trip, came upon the scene about ten minutes later. The doctor examined Bessie and saw that the bones around her elbow were shattered and the soft tissue sliced clear through but that the artery and nerves were intact. She had “severe crushing injuries to her entire right side.” She was “moaning and groaning from excruciating pain and she was having a lot of trouble getting her breath. She was just breathing on the left side of her chest, all the ribs on her right side had been crushed. . . . She wasn’t conscious enough to talk.” Broughton and Dr. Smith moved Bessie onto the grass, and Broughton went to a nearby house to call an ambulance from the black hospital.
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.
Rap does outsell all other CDs, but a few ballads still break into the top forty, usually pop-soul songs by female artists with wide vocal ranges and impressive technical virtuosity. I hear in their singing all the vocal effects that Bessie pioneered—growls, swoops, fills, and multiple notes on one word—but without her discretion, sincerity, and substance. It’s not unusual for a performance of a current pop ballad to consist of little more than the calculated and skillful execution of these vocal effects and for an audience to respond to them as if they were revelations of spontaneous emotion. Primitive as Bessie’s records may sound to today’s ears, they still give both singers and audiences much to learn.
There’s surprisingly little interest in Bessie’s music even among jazz singers and musicians, who usually know little more about her than her most famous song, “St. Louis Blues.” In separate blindfold tests, neither Sarah Vaughan nor Anita O’Day even recognized Bessie’s voice. Vaughan, asked to rate “Young Woman’s Blues,” said, “I’ve always wanted to find out what people see in this kind of thing. I don’t get it. No stars.”
In top-forty pop-soul songs, I hear all the vocal effects she pioneered with none of her sincerity and substance.
When I moved from Rome to London in the 1970s and began singing in pubs and clubs, I found only one pianist who wanted to perform Bessie’s songs with me, and his interest wasn’t in her but in the stride piano of her best accompanist, James P. Johnson. In the 1980s, when I came to New York, I dropped all Bessie Smith numbers from my repertoire, leaving them to singers there who specialized in urban blues. Twelve years later I still hadn’t heard a single performer even mention her name, and I slipped “I Ain’t Coin Play Second Fiddle” into one of my shows. My musicians were reluctant to play old-style jazz—they found the 1920s time-feel stiff and the harmonies corny—but once they heard the audience laugh and cheer, they were as won over as I had been that winter in Rome, when I finally gave her music a real chance.
Today I wouldn’t think of giving a performance without at least one Bessie Smith number, and I’m as amused as the audience at the bigger, gruffer voice and swaggering stance that her songs bring out in me. I’m sure she’d cuss me out and knock me flat if she heard me stealing her stuff, but my goal is to get her music into the public’s ears. Only recently a young woman came up to me after a concert and said, “I think I could really get into Betsy Smith. Does she have any CDs out?”
The centennial of Bessie’s birth, 1994, passed unnoticed by the national press, though the BBC and National Public Radio both broadcast radio tributes. Last year NPR devoted an hour in its Jazz Profiles series to her life and work. Her mischievous smile beams out from a sheet of colorful twenty-nine-cent stamps, part of a series on legendary blues and jazz singers. Fourteen years ago Chattanooga, her birthplace, added the Bessie Smith Strut to its activities at the annual River Bend Festival, and Bessie Smith Hall, a museum and performance facility, opened there in February 1996. The Clarksdale Hospital where she died is now a hotel, her room usually occupied by European and Japanese fans. Her tombstone in Sharon Hill was placed thirty-three years late, but as the century draws to a close, its inscription still rings true: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”
The eminent black playwright August Wilson said in a recent interview that when he heard his first Bessie Smith record, he thought, “This is mine. This really belongs to me.” I feel exactly the same way, and so, I imagine, do her Danish biographer and the tourists who cross oceans to visit the room she died in. This great artist belongs to everyone who responds to her, and transcends all boundaries of race, nationality, generation, and category. Her work is available, accessible, and life-enriching. For maximum benefit, the beginning listener is advised to sing along with her as loudly as possible on such timeless lines as “I’m a red hot woman, full of flamin’ youth,” “Mr. Rich Man, Mr. Rich Man, open up your heart and mind,” and “It’s a long old road / But I know I’m gonna find the end.”