Who Was Bessie Smith?
Bessie Smith began to sing at a young age and in 1923 signed a contract with Columbia Records. Soon she was among the highest-paid Black performers of her time with hits like "Downhearted Blues." By the end of the 1920s, however, her popularity had lessened, though she continued to perform and made new recordings at the start of the Swing Era. Her comeback and life were cut short when she died on September 26, 1937, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Smith was born on April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was one of seven children. Her father, a Baptist minister, died soon after her birth, leaving her mother to raise her and her siblings. Around 1906 her mother and two of her brothers died and Smith and her remaining siblings were raised by their aunt. It was around this time that Smith began to perform as a street singer, accompanied on the guitar by one of her younger brothers. In 1912 Smith began performing as a dancer in the Moses Stokes minstrel show, and soon thereafter in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, of which blues vocalist Ma Rainey was a member. Rainey took Smith under her wing, and over the next decade, Smith continued to perform at various theaters and on the vaudeville circuit.
By the early 1920s, Smith had settled down and was living in Philadelphia, and in 1923 she met and married a man named Jack Gee. That same year, she was discovered by a representative from Columbia Records, with whom she signed a contract and made her first song recordings. Among them was a track titled "Downhearted Blues," which was wildly popular and sold an estimated 800,000 copies, propelling Smith into the blues spotlight. With her rich, powerful voice, Smith soon became a successful recording artist and toured extensively. Going forward with an idea presented by her brother and business manager Clarence, Smith eventually bought a custom railroad car for her traveling troupe to travel and sleep in.
In her recording career, Smith worked with many important jazz performers, such as saxophonist Sidney Bechet and pianists Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson. With Johnson, she recorded one of her most famous songs, "Backwater Blues."
Collaboration with Louis Armstrong
Smith also collaborated with the legendary jazz artist Louis Armstrong on several tunes, including "Cold in Hand Blues" and "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle," and "St. Louis Blues." By the end of the 1920s, Smith was the highest-paid Black performer of her day, and had earned herself the title "Empress of the Blues."
'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out'
Perhaps Smith's most popular song was her 1929 hit "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," written by Jimmy Cox six years earlier. Smith's version of the song, released in September 1929, was eerily prescient in that the stock market crashed just two weeks later. The song would later become the basis of a short film by the same name.
Decline and Revival
However, at the height of her success, Smith’s career began to flounder, due in part to the financial ravages of the Great Depression and a change in cultural mores. In 1929, she and Gee permanently separated, and by the end of 1931 Smith had stopped working with Columbia altogether. However, ever the dedicated performer, Smith adapted her repertoire and continued to tour. In 1933, Smith was contacted by producer John Hammond to make new recordings, which hinted at the coming Swing Era.
On September 26, 1937, Smith was en route to a show in Memphis, Tennessee with her companion of many years, Richard Morgan, when he sideswiped a truck and lost control of their car. Smith was thrown from the vehicle and badly injured. She died of her wounds in a Clarkdale, Mississippi hospital. She was 43.
Smith’s funeral was held in Philadelphia a week later, with thousands coming to pay their respects. She was buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.
Legacy and Accomplishments
Since her death, Smith’s music continues to win over new fans, and collections of her songs have continued to sell extremely well over the years. She has been a primary influence for countless female vocalists — including Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin — and has been immortalized in numerous works. A comprehensive, acclaimed bio on her life — Bessie, by journalist Chris Albertson — was published in 1972 and expanded in 2003. A film loosely based on the book aired in 2015, with Queen Latifah (who also executive produced the project) portraying Smith and Mo'Nique playing Ma Rainey.
During her marriage to Gee, Smith informally adopted a six-year-old boy and named him Jack Jr. But as her and Gee's relationship became strained, Gee would use their son as a bargaining chip, eventually kidnapping him and accusing Smith of being a neglectful, incompetent mother. A court ruling first gave custody to Smith's sister Viola, then later to Jack Jr.'s biological father who neglected the boy and sometimes forgot to feed him.
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