Bessie Smith laid the foundation of popular music for decades.
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Bessie Smith was photographed by Carl Van Vechten
Born April 15, 1894
Origin Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States
Died September 26, 1937
Years active 1912-1937
Bessie Smith (July, 1892 – September 26, 1937) is largely regarded as the most popular and successful blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, and by some as the most influential performer in blues history.
She has had an enormous influence on singers throughout the history of American popular music, including Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Janis Joplin.
Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States in July, 1892. Historically, and perhaps incorrectly, listed as April 15, 1894 for decades, her birth month and year was listed in the 1900 census as July, 1892.
The question rises: how and why her birthdate was changed and who changed it? The best genealogical evidence suggests that the discrepancy occurred between the 1900 and 1910 census and is a result of the older sister, Viola, who had taken over as head of household after their mother's death, not actually having real knowledge of and, therefore, guessing at her sister's birthdate. The April 15, 1894 date was taken from her marriage license, issued when she married Jack Gee on June 7, 1923.
Bessie Smith was one of seven children of William and Laura Smith.
According to Smith's biographer in his book Bessie.William Smith was a laborer who also worked as a part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a minister of the gospel, in Moulton, Lawrence, Alabama), but he died before Bessie could remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, she had lost her mother as well, and her older sister Viola was left in charge of caring for the younger sisters and brothers.
As a way of earning money for her impoverished household, Bessie and her brother Andrew began performing on the streets of Chattanooga as a singer/guitarist duo; their preferred 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 to tour with a small traveling theatre company, and it was this decisive act of her brother's that convinced Bessie that she could make a living as an entertainer. As Bessie's niece-by-marriage Ruby Walker told biographer Albertson in 1971, "Bessie probably wouldn't have been in show business if it hadn't been for Clarence."
When Clarence returned to Chattanooga in 1912 with the Moses Stokes theatre company, he arranged for the troupe's managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give his sister an audition. Bessie was hired as a dancer rather than singer, because the Stokes company also included Ma Rainey.
All contemporary accounts indicate that Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, but she probably helped her develop a stage presence. Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theatre. By 1920 she had gained a good reputation in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.
In 1923, when sales figures for an Okeh recording by singer Mamie Smith (no relation) opened up a new market and had talent scouts looking for blues artists, Smith was signed by Columbia Records to initiate the company's new "race records" series.
Scoring a big hit with her first release, an Alberta Hunter composition called "Down Hearted Blues," Bessie saw her career blossom and quickly rose to stardom as a headliner on the black Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) theater circuit. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter months and doing tent tours for the rest of the year (eventually traveling in her own railroad car), Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. She was nicknamed "Queen of the Blues", but soon elevated to "Empress".
She would make some 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by some of the finest musicians of the day, most notably Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, and Fletcher Henderson.
Smith's career was cut short by a combination of the Great Depression (which all but put the recording industry out of business) and the advent of "talkies", which spelled the end for vaudeville. She, however, never stopped performing. While the days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, Bessie continued touring and occasionally singing in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called Pansy, a musical in which, the top white critics agreed, she was the only asset.
That same year, she made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler based on W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues". In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, NY, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, pianist James P. Johnson, and a string section — a musical environment radically different from any found on her recordings.
In 1933, John Hammond saw Bessie perform in a small Philadelphia club and asked her to record four sides for the Okeh label (which had been acquired by Columbia).
These performances, for which Hammond paid her a non-royalty fee of $37.50 each, were recorded on 24 November 1933. They constitute Smith's final recordings. They are of particular interest because Smith was in the process of translating her blues artistry into something more apropos to the Swing Era, and this session gives us a hint of what was to come.
The accompanying band included such Swing Era musicians as trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, pianist Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, and bassist Billy Taylor.
Even Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in the adjoining studio, dropped by for an almost inaudible guest visit. Hammond was not pleased with the result, preferring to have Smith back in her old blues groove, but "Take Me For A Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot" (in which Goodman is part of the ensemble) remain among her most popular recordings.
On September 26, 1937, Smith was severely injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale, Mississippi with her lover (and Lionel Hampton's uncle), Richard Morgan, at the wheel. She was taken to Clarksdale's black Afro-American Hospital where her right arm was amputated. She never regained consciousness, and died that morning. 
The Afro-American Hospital, now the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, was the site of the dedication of the fourth historic marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Given the technical faults in the majority of her gramophone recordings -- especially variations in recording speed, which raised or lowered the apparent pitch of her voice, misrepresented the "light and shade" of her superb phrasing, interpretation and delivery, and altered the apparent key of her performances (sometimes raised or lowered by as much as a semitone) and, also, the fact that the "centre hole" in some of the master recordings had not been in the true middle of the master disc, meaning that there were wide variations in tone, pitch, key and phrasing as the commercially released record revolved around its spindle -- there is a very significant and very positive difference in the performance that Smith delivers in the current digitally remastered versions of her work.
Chris Albertson (1975) Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, Schirmer Books
Chris Albertson (2003 Revised Edition) Bessie, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-09902-9
Jackie Kay (1997) Bessie Smith, Absolute Press, ISBN 1-899791-55-8
References in Other Works
Pete Welding and Toby Byron (Editors) (1991) Bluesland, Dutton. T'Aint Nobody's Business If I Do, Chapter by Chris Albertson, ISBN 0-525-93375-1
Angela Y Davis (1998) Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Pantheon. Heavy focus on Bessie Smith, also contains 100 pages of lyrics recorded by her, ISBN 0-679-45005-X
The rock and roll group The Band, popular during the 1960s and the 1970s, wrote a song about Bessie Smith named after her. Singer Norah Jones included the song in a 2002 concert performance at the House of Blues.
Excerpt of the lyrics to The Band's "Bessie Smith":
"Bessie was more than just a friend of mine
We shared the good times with the bad
Now many a year has passed me by
I still recall the best thing I ever had
I'm just goin' down the road t' see Bessie
Oh, See her soon
Goin' down the road t' see Bessie Smith
When I get there I wonder what she'll do.."
The 1996 album of Seattle punk band The Gits, Kings and Queens, included a live piano-accompanied improvisation cover of Smith's "Graveyard Dream Blues" named "Graveyard Blues" sung by blues-influenced vocalist Mia Zapata. The song starts with Zapata telling the audience that "This is a song by (...) Bessie Smith. This is from her to you..." The track is held in high regard by Gits fans and music critics.
In early 2006, UK alternative Rock/Hip Hop act Bad Music Inc. paid tribute to Smith with their song Bessie.
Excerpt of the lyrics to Bad Music Inc's "Bessie":
"It's easy to forget, or not to be aware
So let me take a moment, I've a legacy to share
Bessie, Bessie sing through your pain..."
Singer/pianist/songwriter Nina Simone dedicates her blues-song "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl" to Bessie Smith on her live-album It Is Finished (1974), stating "Bessie Smith, you know?..." before commencing with the song. Ironically, the song title was changed to "I Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl" on the album, and credited to Ms. Simone.
Often the subject of concept albums, Bessie has been paid such a recorded tribute by numerous singers, including Juanita Hall, Dinah Washington, and Teresa Brewer.
The character of Shug Avery in 'Alice Walker's 'The Color Purple' is reportedly inspired / based on Smith.
Liner notes by Chris Albertson, Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings, Volumes 1 - 5. Sony Music Entertainment, 1991.
Albertson, C., Bessie, Stein and Day, (New York), 1972.
Albertson, C., Bessie (Revised and Expanded Edition), Yale University Press, (New Haven), 2003. ISBN 0-300-09902-9 Bessie
Brooks, E., The Bessie Smith companion : a critical and detailed appreciation of the recordings, Da Capo Press, (New York), 1982.
Davis, A.Y., Blues legacies and Black feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Pantheon Books, (New York), 1998.  
Eberhardt, C., Out of Chattanooga, Ebco, (Chattanooga), 1993.
Feinstein, E., Bessie Smith, Viking, (New York), 1985, ISBN 0670806420.
Grimes, S., Backwaterblues: in search of Bessie Smith, Rose Island Pub., (Amherst), 2000, ISBN 0970708904.
Kay, J., Bessie Smith, Absolute, (New York), 1997, ISBN 1899791558.
Manera, A., Bessie Smith, Raintree, (Chicago), 2003, ISBN 0739868756.
Martin, F., Bessie Smith, Editions du Limon, (Paris), 1994, ISBN 290722431X.
Moore, C., Somebody's angel child; the story of Bessie Smith, T. Y. Crowell Co., (New York), 1969. A children's book that is largely fiction.
Oliver, P., Bessie Smith, Cassell, (London), 1959.
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