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Subject: ARCHIVE: September 26, 1937 ~BESSIE SMITH, renowned blues singer widely during the Jazz Age, nicknamed the "Empress of the Blues", she was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era, died after a violent car accident, at age 43. ...
American blues singer widely renowned during the Jazz Age. Nicknamed the "Empress of the Blues", she was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and was a major influence on fellow blues singers, as well as jazz vocalists. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, her parents died when she was young and the children scraped by doing street performing in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She began touring and performed in a group that included "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey, and then went out on her own. Her successful recording career began in the 1920s, until an automobile accident ended her life at age 43.
Early Life ...
The 1900 census indicates that her family reported that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July 1892. The 1910 census gives her age as 16, and a birth date of April 15, 1894 which appears on subsequent documents and was observed as her birthday by the Smith family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but later interviews with Smith's family and contemporaries contain no mention of them against her siblings.
She was the daughter of Laura (born Snow) and William Urie, a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a "minister of the gospel," in Moulton, Lawrence County, Alabama). He died while his daughter was too young to remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, her mother and a brother had also died. Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings. Consequently, Bessie was unable to gain an education because her parents had died and her elder sister was taking care of her.
Due to her parents' death and her poverty, Bessie experienced a "wretched childhood." To earn money for their impoverished household, Bessie and her brother Andrew busked on the streets of Chattanooga. She sang and danced as he played the guitar. They often performed on "street corners for pennies," and their habitual location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets, in the heart of the city's African-American community. In 1904, her oldest brother Clarence left home and joined a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud. "That's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child."
In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe and arranged an audition for his sister with the troupe managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher. Bessie was hired as a dancer rather than a vocalist since the company already included popular singer Ma Rainey. Contemporary accounts indicate that, while Ma Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, she likely helped her develop a stage presence. Smith eventually moved on to performing in chorus lines, making the "81" Theater in Atlanta her home base. She also performed in shows on the black-owned Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuit and would become one of its major attractions.
...Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theater. By 1920, she had established a reputation in the South and along the East Coast. At the time, sales of over 100,000 copies of "Crazy Blues," recorded for Okeh Records by the singer Mamie Smith (no relation), pointed to a new market. The recording industry had not directed its product to black people, but the success of the record led to a search for female blues singers.
Hoping to capitalize on this new market, Smith began her recording career in 1923. Bessie Smith was signed to Columbia Records in 1923 by Frank Walker, a talent agent who had seen her perform years earlier. Her first session for Columbia was on February 15, 1923; it was engineered by Dan Hornsby. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia's regular A-series. When the company established a "race records" series, Smith's "Cemetery Blues" (September 26, 1923) was the first issued. Both sides of her first record, "Downhearted Blues" backed with "Gulf Coast Blues", were hits (an earlier recording of "Downhearted Blues" by its co-writer Alberta Hunter had previously been released by Paramount Records).
...As her popularity increased, Smith became a headliner on the T.O.B.A. circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter and performing in tent shows the rest of the year, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day and began traveling in her own 72-foot-long railroad car. Columbia's publicity department nicknamed her "Queen of the Blues," but the national press soon upgraded her title to "Empress of the Blues." Smith's music stressed independence, fearlessness, and sexual freedom, implicitly arguing that working-class women did not have to alter their behavior to be worthy of respect.
Despite her success, neither she nor her music was accepted in all circles. She once auditioned for Black Swan Records (W. E. B. Du Bois was on its board of directors) and was dismissed because she was considered too rough as she supposedly stopped singing to spit. The businessmen involved with Black Swan Records were surprised when she became the most successful diva because her style was rougher and coarser than Mamie Smith. Even her admirers—white and black—considered her a "rough" woman (i.e., working class or even "low class").
Smith had a strong contralto voice, which recorded well from her first
session, which was conducted when recordings were made acoustically. ...
...The advent of electrical recording made the power of her voice even more evident. Her first electrical recording was "Cake Walking Babies [From Home]", recorded on May 5, 1925. Smith also benefited from the new technology of radio broadcasting, even on stations in the segregated South. For example, after giving a concert to a white-only audience at a theater in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 1923, she performed a late-night concert on station WMC, which was well received by the radio audience. Musicians and composers like Danny Barker and Thomas Dorsey compared her presence and delivery to a preacher because of her ability to enrapture and move her audience.
...She made 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, notably Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, and Charlie Green. A number of Smith's recordings—such as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" with the Dorsey Brothers orchestra in 1927—quickly became among the best-selling records of their respective release years.
Smith's career was cut short by the Great Depression, which nearly put the recording industry out of business, and the advent of sound in film, which spelled the end of vaudeville. She never stopped performing, however. The days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, but Smith continued touring and occasionally sang in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway musical, Pansy. The play was a flop; top critics said she was its only asset.
St. Louis Blues ...
In November 1929, Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler,
St. Louis Blues, based on composer W. C. Handy's song of the same name. ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTXBZFvFXdA
...In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, Queens, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra,
the Hall Johnson Choir, the pianist James P. Johnson and a string section—a musical environment radically different from that of any of her recordings.
Swing era ...
In 1933, John Henry Hammond, who also mentored Billie Holiday, asked Smith to record four sides for Okeh (which had been acquired by Columbia Records in 1925). He claimed to have found her in semi-obscurity, "working as a hostess in a speakeasy on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia." Smith worked at Art's Cafe on Ridge Avenue, but not as a hostess and not until the summer of 1936. In 1933, when she made the Okeh sides, she was still touring. Hammond was known for his selective memory and gratuitous embellishments.
Smith was paid a non-royalty fee of $37.50 for each selection on these Okeh sides, which were her last recordings. Made on November 24, 1933, they serve as a hint of the transformation she made in her performances as she shifted her blues artistry into something that fit the swing era. The relatively modern accompaniment is notable. The band included such swing era musicians as the trombonist Jack Teagarden, the trumpeter Frankie Newton, the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, the pianist Buck Washington, the guitarist Bobby Johnson, and the bassist Billy Taylor. Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in the adjoining studio, dropped by and is barely audible on one selection. Hammond was not entirely pleased with the results, preferring to have Smith revisit her old blues sound. "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)", both written by Wesley Wilson, were among her most popular recordings. ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbQEapPrjGM
On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car crash on U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving, and misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Skid marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith's old Packard vehicle. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.
The first person on the scene was a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation). In the early 1970s, Hugh Smith gave a detailed account of his experience to Bessie's biographer Chris Albertson. This is the most reliable eyewitness testimony about the events surrounding her death. Arriving at the scene, Hugh Smith examined Smith, who was lying in the middle of the road with obviously severe injuries. He estimated she had lost about a half pint of blood, and immediately noted a major traumatic injury: her right arm was almost completely severed at the elbow. He stated that this injury alone did not cause her death. Though the light was poor, he observed only minor head injuries. He attributed her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a sideswipe collision.
Henry Broughton, a fishing partner of Dr. Smith's, helped him move Bessie Smith to the shoulder of the road. Dr. Smith dressed her arm injury with a clean handkerchief and asked Broughton to go to a house about 500 feet off the road to call an ambulance. By the time Broughton returned, about 25 minutes later, Bessie Smith was in shock.
Second collision ....
Time passed with no sign of the ambulance, so Hugh Smith suggested that they take her into Clarksdale in his car. He and Broughton had almost finished clearing the back seat when they heard the sound of a car approaching at high speed. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the oncoming car failed to slow and plowed into his car at full speed. It sent his car careening into Bessie Smith's overturned Packard, completely wrecking it. The oncoming car ricocheted off Hugh Smith's car into the ditch on the right, barely missing Broughton and Bessie Smith.
The young couple in the speeding car did sustain life-threatening injuries. Two ambulances then arrived from Clarksdale—one from the black hospital, summoned by Broughton, the second from the white hospital, acting on a report from the truck driver, who had not seen the crash victims. Bessie Smith was taken to the G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After her death, an often repeated, but now discredited story emerged that she died because a whites-only hospital in Clarksdale refused to admit her. The jazz writer and producer John Hammond gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine. The circumstances of Smith's death and the rumor reported by Hammond formed the basis for Edward Albee's 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith. "The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital; you can forget that," Hugh Smith told Albertson. "Down in the Deep South Cotton Belt, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks."
Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia a little over a week later, on October 4, 1937. Initially, her body was laid out at Upshur's funeral home.
As word of her death spread through Philadelphia's black community, her body had to be moved to the O. V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate
the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday, October 3. ...
...Contemporary newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery,
in nearby Sharon Hill. Jack Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.
Unmarked grave ...
Smith's grave remained unmarked for 33 years, until a tombstone was erected on August 7, 1970, paid for by the singer
Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith. Dory Previn wrote a song about Joplin
and the tombstone, "Stone for Bessie Smith", for her album Mythical Kings and Iguanas. The Afro-American Hospital
(now the Riverside Hotel) was the site of the dedication of the fourth historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail. ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOHyk5W5-uA
Personal life ...
In 1923, Smith was living in Philadelphia when she met Jack Gee, a security guard,
whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was being released. ...
...During the marriage, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own custom-built railroad car. Their marriage was stormy with infidelity on both sides, including numerous female sex partners for Bessie. Gee was impressed by the money, but never adjusted to show business life or to Smith's bisexuality. In 1929, when she learned of his affair with another singer, Gertrude Saunders, Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.
Smith later entered a common-law marriage with an old friend, Richard Morgan,
who was Lionel Hampton's uncle. She stayed with him until her death. ...
Musical themes ...
Songs like Jail House Blues, Work House Blues, Prison Blues, Sing Sing Prison Blues and Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair dealt critically with social issues of the day such as chain gangs, the convict lease system and capital punishment. Poor Man's Blues and Washwoman's Blues are considered by scholars to be an early form of African American protest music. What becomes evident after listening to her music and studying her lyrics is that Smith emphasized and channeled a subculture within the African-American working class. Additionally, she incorporated commentary on social issues like poverty, intra-racial conflict, and female sexuality into her lyrics. Her lyrical sincerity and public behavior were not widely accepted as appropriate expressions for African American women; therefore, her work was often written off as distasteful or unseemly, rather than as an accurate representation of the African-American experience.
Smith's work challenged elitist norms by encouraging working-class women to embrace their right to drink, party, and satisfy their sexual needs as a means of coping with stress and dissatisfaction in their daily lives. Smith advocated for a wider vision of African-American womanhood beyond domesticity, piety, and conformity; she sought empowerment and happiness through independence, sassiness, and sexual freedom. Although Smith was a voice for many minority groups and one of the most gifted blues performers of her time, the themes in her music were precocious, which led to many believing that her work was undeserving of serious recognition.
Hit records ...
There was no official national record chart in the US until 1936. The notional positions below have been formulated post facto by Joel Whitburn.