Pat Blythe: Women of Blues 3 – Bessie Smith – The Empress of The Blues

pblythe

“The blues is not about people knowing you, it’s about you knowing the people.”– Ma Rainey, (from the HBO movie Bessie)

Bessie_Smith young

Sometimes called crude, rough and even violent, Smith had “achieved a degree of infamy for her boozing, her brawling and her sexual appetites” during her lifetime. Bessie Smith is considered the greatest classical blues singer of the 20th century. Dubbed The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the highest paid black singer of her day. Her powerful, forceful voice required no amplification. In a white-controlled world and in a business dominated by men (no change there) Smith demanded equal pay and commanded respect.

Born in the Blue Goose Hollow section of Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894, Smith had lost both parents and two brothers by the time she was nine. The family, headed by elder sibling Viola, was living in dire poverty so Smith, at an extremely early age (six- or seven-years-old), began busking with her brother Andrew on the downtown streets of Chattanooga. The duet usually stationed themselves in front of their preferred location, the White Elephant Saloon, at Thirteenth and Elm. Smith had an unusual voice even then so she sang, as well as danced, while her brother played guitar.

White Elephant Saloon

White Elephant Saloon, Chattanooga, Tennessee

In 1904 Smith’s eldest brother Clarence, knowing Bessie would follow him, quietly slipped away from home to join a small traveling minstrel troupe. Clarence returned eight years later, still working for the Moses Stokes Company traveling minstrel show, and arranged for managers Lonnie and Cora Fisher to give his sister Bessie an audition. *Smith was hired as a dancer as the company already had a well-known singer — Ma Rainey — and so began Bessie Smith’s life as a professional performer. Rainey mentored the young singer, helping Smith develop her stage presence. Smith’s brother Clarence never left her again and remained her manager and business advisor until her death.

“You got the St. Louis blues, the Chicago blues, the gin house blues, the man done left me blues. They all the same song ain’t they, with the same three chords…and you done heard ’em about a dozen hundred times from a dozen hundred people. What makes folks wanna hear from you. …you got to put something else in it.” (Ma Rainey to Smith in Bessie)

Having been guided and counseled by the more experienced Rainey, Smith started forming her own act in about 1913 using the “81” Theatre in Atlanta as her base. By 1920 Smith had grown enormously popular, developing quite a reputation all through the south and up and down the Atlantic seaboard. She was a passionate and sensual singer, captivating and some even say, hypnotizing her audiences.

Bailey's 81 Theatre. (Charles Pugh / AJC staff)

Bailey’s 81 Theatre. (Charles Pugh / AJC staff)

The “81” Theatre first opened as a vaudeville theatre around 1908. It was remodelled in 1928 and reopened as an African American theatre. It was demolished in 1965.

The Halcyon Years

In 1920, Crazy Blues was recorded by blues singer Mamie Smith (no relation to Bessie) for Okeh Records. Over 100,000 copies were sold. The recording industry sat bolt upright and took notice, suddenly realizing there was a whole new, as yet untapped market. Up until this time, the black market had never been a consideration….it now had the record company’s undivided attention. The unexpected, roaring success of Crazy Blues triggered a search for black female blues singers to add to their rosters and talent agents hit the ground running.

Crazy Blues – Mamie Smith (1920)

(“Mamie Smith was the first African-American female performer to make a vocal blues recording…The song was written by Perry Bradford and it was recorded on August 10, 1920, by Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds.”)

New Race Records ColumbiaIn 1923, the search by Frank Walker, a Columbia talent agent, led to Bessie Smith whom he had heard sing several years earlier. Smith, who was living in Philadelphia at the time, was signed to Columbia Records and promptly relocated to New York. (This was the same year Ma Rainey signed with Paramount.) All of Smith’s recordings during 1923 were on Columbia’s A-list until Columbia decided to establish a “race record” series, creatively named New Race Records. The first of the series was Cemetery Blues. Her next recording Downhearted Blues b/w Gulf Coast Blues sold 800,000 copies and established Smith as a major figure in the black recording market, propelling her into the blues spotlight.

Downhearted Blues – Bessie Smith

T’aint Nobody’s Business (If I Do) – Bessie Smith

Smith continued to tour extensively — a heavy theatre schedule in the winter and tent tours in the summer. She headlined her own shows with sometimes up to 40 troupers — singing, dancing, acting and performing comedy routines with her traveling company — eventually purchasing a custom railroad car for her and her troupe to travel and sleep in. Smith was bringing in the unheard of sum of $2,000 a week making her a very wealthy woman indeed. During this period Smith made 160 recordings for Columbia with some of the finest musicians of the time accompanying her. Louis Armstrong (jazz trumpeter and singer), Coleman “Hawk” Hawkins (tenor saxophone), Fletcher Henderson (pianist and band leader), Joe “Fox” Smith (jazz trumpeter), Charlie Green (trombonist) and James P. Johnson (pianist and composer). All of these men were major influencers in the jazz era — Johnson wrote the theme song The Charleston for the movie The Roaring Twenties. His song If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight) has been sung, whistled and hummed  in seven different movies between 1939 and 2006. With Johnson, Smith would record one of her most famous songs, Backwater Blues. Hawkins was instrumental in bringing the saxophone into the jazz fold. With Armstrong she would record Cold in Hand Blues, I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle and St. Louis Blues.

James P Johnston_Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson

Black Water Blues – Bessie Smith & James. P. Johnston (1927)

Cold in Hand Blues – Bessie Smith & Louis Armstrong

“Smith had a powerfully strong voice that recorded very well from her first record, made during the time when recordings were made acoustically. With the coming of electrical recording (her first electrical recording was Cake Walking Babies) …the sheer power of her voice was even more evident.” You can hear the jazz influence even then. Smith also took advantage of radio broadcasting even on radio stations in the segregated south. She would begin the evening by giving an concert to a whites-only audience and then head to the radio station to sing another late night concert for radio listeners.

bessie-smith-and-louis-armstrong

Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith

Cake Walkin’ Babies – Bessie Smith (1925)

Bessie album st. Louis bluesSmith’s only film appearance was in a movie called St. Louis Blues. “This is not only a landmark because it contains Bessie Smith’s only known film appearance but also for being one of the very first talkies ever made. This is the complete film co-starring Jimmy Mordecai as her gigolo boyfriend. This film fell into the public domain in 1958 due to lack of copyright renewal.” The short, two-reel, 15-minute movie was panned by critics but it is the only record we have of Smith on film.

St. Louis Blues (movie short) – Bessie Smith

St. Louis Blues (song) – Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong

Ending of an Era

Smith’s songs were songs of the south….raw and uncut….everyday experiences in plain spoken English, not unlike the rap music of a future generation. Smith was at her peak during the 1920’s. However, by 1929 Smith’s style of classic blues was falling out of favour. The Great Depression, combined with radio and sound movies had all damaged the record companies’ ability to sell records. Columbia dropped her in 1931. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out became an anthem for millions of people during this time. However, Smith never stopped performing.  Biographer Chris Albertson once said, “Bessie had a wonderful way of turning adversity into triumph, and many of her songs are the tales of liberated women.”

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out –  Bessie Smith (1929)

Her last recordings in 1933 were under the direction of John Hammond, Billie Holiday’s mentor. Smith was asked to record four sides for Okeh (now owned by Columbia) and was paid $37.50 per side….no royalties. These recordings bore a “hint of transformation” as she was beginning to integrate her blues artistry with the songs of the swing era. The most popular of the four songs was Gimme A Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer) and was the only song of the four to include Benny Goodman on clarinet. Hammond had arranged for swing era musicians such as trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, pianist Buck Washington and tenor-saxophonist Chu Berry — “the most modern band Bessie had ever had,” — to record with her. Smith went on to play the Apollo in 1935 and subbed for Billie Holiday in Stars Over Broadway.

Gimme a Pigfoot (and A Bottle of Beer) – Bessie Smith (1933)

Do Your Duty – Bessie Smith (1933)

On A Personal Note

(I usually avoid delving into the personal lives of whomever I am writing about. However, Smith’s entire personal and professional lives were so intertwined in her music, they were two parts of the whole. — PB)

Bessie Smith married security guard Jack Gee in February, 1923. She had just completed her first recordings for Columbia Records and Downhearted Blues was just on the edge of thrusting Smith into the spotlight. According to Smith’s niece Ruby, the couple were extremely happy in the beginning but the marriage quickly turned violent and stormy with sexual liaisons on both sides. Confronting each other was a common occurrence but the guilty party was quite often Smith herself. Smith was traveling constantly and had been struggling with alcoholism since her teenage years. She fought to keep her marriage and family life together, evening adopting a young boy to assuage Gee and create (in her mind) the family she never had. Seething jealousy of Smith’s popularity had grabbed a hold of Gee and never let go. When Smith and Gee finally separated in 1929, Gee, in a vindictive fit of rage, accused Smith of child abuse and the boy was taken away by social services. Smith never saw her son again. She poured all the pain, hurt and anger….her entire life….into her songs. Her music represented the very heart of who she was.

jackie-gee-and-bessie-smith

Jack Gee and Bessie Smith at the time of their marriage (1923)

After separating from Gee, Smith reconnected with an old friend, Richard Morgan. Morgan was the antithesis of Gee and became her common-law husband. They remained together until her death in 1937.

Death and Legacy

 bessie-and-richard-morgan-1937 with Packard

Richard Morgan and Bessie Smith pose with her Packard in 1937

After recording for Hammond, Smith was heading for a comeback, including a chance to perform with Lionel Hampton (who was Morgan’s nephew), at Carnegie Hall. Tragically, her life was cut short at the age of 43 after the car she was riding in rear-ended a truck. Morgan, who was driving at the time, misjudged the speed of the slow-moving truck ahead of them. He swerved too late and the passenger side of the car took the full force of the accident. Smith was badly injured and died from blood loss shortly after arriving at hospital. Her visitation and funeral were held in Philadelphia and, as word spread of her death, over 10,000 mourners came to pay their respects. Seven thousand people attended her funeral. Smith was buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill. For years, Gee frustrated all attempts to purchase a headstone for his wife’s grave, even pocketing some of the money raised.  On August 7, 1970, a tombstone was erected to mark Bessie Smith’s final resting place. Janis Joplin (who split the cost of the tombstone with Juanita Green, Smith’s former housekeeper), once told friends she felt she was “Bessie Smith reincarnated”. Joplin chose the epitaph, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World”, and attended the placement. Two months later, Joplin herself was dead.

Bessie casket

Bessie Smith’s funeral

Stone for Bessie Smith – Dori Previn

(Written by Dory Previn, “Stone for Bessie Smith” was the story of Janis Joplin and the tombstone. The song was included on Previn’s album Mythical Kings and Iguanas.)

Smith was, and still is, considered the greatest female blues singer in history. “Her trademark singing style was based on her impeccable timing, pure emotions, and her uncanny ability to shift from a straight to swing with relative ease. She sang like others played guitar. She could bend, slur, dip and glide a note. She possessed a unique sense of rhythm, and was able to change keys instantly.”

Bessie Smith was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. The Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts included Downhearted Blues in the list of Songs of the Century in 2002. The song is also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock ‘n roll.

Smith influenced many female vocalists including Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Norah Jones and Janis Joplin. She was one of the first female musicians to sing about domestic abuse and violence against women, particularly black women. In 2015 HBO released the biopic Bessie. The movie was a project near and dear to Queen Latifah who had spent the better part of 20 years putting it together. Latifah stars as Bessie, with Mo’Nique playing the role of Ma Rainey. I have watched the movie twice now. It’s beautifully shot, honest, authentic, raw (like Smith herself) wonderfully acted….a loving tribute to The Empress of Blues.

Bessie_Smith

Almost eight decades on there has still never been another singer like her. I leave you with….

Bessie

http://vidto.me/61f9rmflqrtq.html

Cheers,

* Writer’s Note: Some sources have Bessie meeting Ma Rainey at the age of 14 which means they would have met in 1908. However, if Clarence traveled with Stokes for eight years before returning home — having left Chattanooga in 1904 — Bessie would have been 18 years at the time she was hired as a dancer and subsequently met Ma Rainey (who would have been 26 years and already into here sixth year of marriage to Pa Rainey). There is no doubt Rainey showed the young, inexperienced Bessie how to navigate the hazardous waters of show business life. The vaudeville circuit was an extremely harsh life with unscrupulous promoters and less than stellar accommodations. Rainey taught the young Bessie not only how to work the stage, but to be careful with her money and Bessie learned to wear a carpenter’s apron, that held her cash, under her dress.

There has been so much written about Bessie Smith it was sometimes difficult to discern fact from fiction or even hyperbole. Date and timing conflicts, what minstrel shows she did and didn’t work with and for how long, have been challenging to determine. Therefore, some dates and specific names of the minstrel shows have been omitted. Even the year of her birth — 1892, 1894 or 1895 is in dispute although most sources have settled on 1894.

Sources

Wikipedia, Biography, YouTube, The Ruby Tapes, NNDB, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, AllMusic, Red Hot Jazz Archive, Encyclopedia of World Biography, HBO, The Blues Encyclopedia, Naxos Music Library, Blues Singers: Biographies of 50 Legendary Artists of the Early 20th Century By David Dicaire

=PB=

Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-buttonIn “real” life Pat Blythe has spent the past 32 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry. After an extended absence Pat is now heading back to the GTA clubs, immersing herself in the local music scene, tasting what’s on offer, talking to people and writing once again — sharing her passions and her deep love of music. Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who shot much  of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda Little Red-headed dancing girland the Imps, Plateau, Buzzsaw, Hellfield….) as well as national and international acts,  Currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, Pat is currently compiling a photographic history of the local GTA music scene from 1975 to 1985. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance!

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: