Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Smith, Bessie

Bessie Smith was the first singer to popularize early jazz song. Her iconic performances of the urban blues paved the way for singers such as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughan, all of whom proclaimed their debts to her, and wove the blues into their repertoire.

Bessie was born on April 15, 1894 in Blue Goose Hollow, Chattanooga, Tennessee to Laura (Owens) Smith and William Smith, a Baptist minister. Her father died while Bessie was an infant, and her mother was dead by the time she was nine. Viola, her oldest sister, shouldered the task of providing for her three sisters and two brothers by taking in laundry. This strong work ethic made a lasting impression on Bessie.

Bessie was determined to leave the poverty and inequality of Blue Goose Hollow, and show business was her ticket. After her brother Clarence ran away from home to tour with a vaudeville troupe led by Moses Stokes, she started street corner singing and dancing with her brother Andrew to boost the family’s income. When Clarence came back to town with Stokes in 1912, Smith got him to set up an audition for her.

Stokes hired Bessie as a dancer, since he already had a singer – Ma Rainey. Bessie toured with the show and settled in Atlanta, where she began to perform her own act at the 81 Theatre. During this time, she developed a reputation as a performer at black theaters across the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.

While she shares an affinity with Ma Rainey, Bessie was decidedly an original, and a natural singer. Rainey is a contralto with a rural blues feel, and an almost male delivery. Bessie Smith is a soprano with a more urban, polished style. In any case Bessie undoubtedly learned how to handle herself on stage from Rainey, even though their styles were different.

Things began to change after 1920, when singer Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” for Okeh. The single broke all sales records and created a new market for black blues singing. In 1923, Smith, then living in Philadelphia, auditioned successfully for a recording contract with Columbia.

Bessie’s first release for Columbia, “Downhearted Blues,” became a major hit whose success overwhelmed the earlier version of the song recorded for Paramount by its composer, Alberta Hunter. While Bessie was not the first blues singer to reach a national audience, she quickly became their favorite, and was acclaimed by the press as the “Empress of the Blues.”

That same year she married Jack Gee. Her first husband, Earl Love, had apparently been killed in World War I, and Gee, a security guard who was not in show business, never acquired a taste for it. Their stormy relationship served as an inspiration for some of her later lyrics.

The instrumentation in Smith’s recordings varies, but is often piano, cornet, and trombone, and banjo, with elements of Dixieland and ragtime. She did several sides with Joe Smith, her favorite cornetist, Fletcher Henderson on piano, and Charlie Green on trombone.

Another key collaborator was Louis Armstrong. 1925’s “St. Louis Blues” captures both artists at the peak of their creativity. In the words of Smith biographer Chris Albertson, “The result is that you have a great singer accompanied by a great trumpet player, but it sounds more like a duet.”

Smith gives the song all its pathos, and Armstrong’s fills and harmonic sense complement her like a bird. Her famous, gutsy growl punctuates the lyrics, and she belts out the finish singing up to the tonic, just as Armstrong would have played it himself. Modern-day audiences can watch Smith sing this W.C. Handy classic in a 1929 movie called “St. Louis Blues,” which captures Smith’s vocal power and depicts the lifestyle she sang about.

Smith’s songs are also important for their themes. A woman wronged, unrequited love, avenged unrequited love, the good-for-nothing, abusive philanderer – and how a woman still loves him, no matter how he treats her – this is the heart of Smith’s lyrics, and life. In Albertson’s view, “almost every song is autobiographical.”

Although much of Smith’s life is shrouded in myth, one true story was the time a drunken man stabbed her in Chattanooga after an argument. She chased the man, knife still in her, and performed the next day after hospital attention. Smith also liked to drink. Even after prohibition, “the sealed stuff made her sick,” according to her niece Ruby Walker.

Smith had a gift of throwing herself entirely into the emotion of a song. Three 1927 recordings show this well. Her high-spirited joy in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” are as rousing as the deep sorrow in “Backwater Blues,” a song Smith wrote about losing everything in a storm and flood. Pianist James P. Johnson accompanies her on it. In evidence of Smith’s influence on future generations of jazz singers, Dinah Washington recorded a powerful version of this song in 1957.

The wit in Smith’s lyrics and sexual innuendo are renowned. In “Kitchen Man,” a lady laments losing the cook with a hard jelly roll, who makes her sweet frankfurters and sausage meat. He’s great at opening clams, the lyrics say, and when she eats his donuts, all that’s left is the hole.

In 1933, Smith had what was to be her last recording session. With Frank Newton on trumpet, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Buck Washington on piano, Bobby Johnson on guitar, and Billy Taylor on bass, it had a touch of a swing feel.

Swing was where tastes were headed in the thirties, and Smith’s career slowed down as the Swing Era dawned. But she was ready to change along with musical fashion, because she was a survivor.

When she died after a car accident in 1937, Lionel Hampton, the nephew of her then companion Richard Morgan, was planning to record Smith with a star lineup of Swing musicians, according to Albertson. Though she never made it to that date, her contributions to jazz song have been tremendous and lasting.

Contributor: Roanna Forman