BESSIE SMITH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Elizabeth 'Bessie' Smith was born in April 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee to a poor family of sharecroppers. Her parents both died when she was a very young girl and she was brought up by her older brothers Clarence and Andrew, and sister Viola. It was Clarence who gave a pre-teenage Bessie her first taste of music, encouraging her to sing and dance. After Clarence left to join a travelling medicine show, Bessie and Andrew made some money by singing and dancing on street corners. With Clarence's influence Bessie was hired as a dancer with the travelling show when she was in her mid teens, and quickly became a featured singer. She struck up a friendship with another singer, Ma Rainey, who was eight years her senior and who coached her young protegee. 

Bessie's career blossomed and by 1920 she had her own show in Atlantic City, moving to Philadelphia in 1921 and on to New York by 1923. There she signed for Columbia Records and recorded "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Down Hearted Blues", becoming the first major blues star to record. The record sold more than 750,000 copies and ensured Bessie Smith permanent blues fame. During the next ten years she recorded more than 150 songs for Columbia including some of her most famous songs such as " St. Louis Blues", "Gimme a Pigfoot", "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out", "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do", "Mama's Got the Blues", and "Poor Man's Blues". Throughout this period she was backed by a succession of musicians who would go on to become major stars themselves, e.g. pianist Fletch Henderson, cornetist's Louis Armstrong and Joe Smith, saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Don Redman, and clarinetist Benny Goodman. 

"She came out on the stage in yards of pearls, emerging like a favorite scenic view, flashed her golden smile and sang." Robert Earl Hayden (19131980), U.S. poet.

As interest in the blues declined towards the end of the 1920's her recording output reduced and she was finally dropped by Columbia in 1931. She carried on performing, initially in New York and made her final recordings in 1933. In 1937 she was touring in the south when she was in a major car wreck on Highway 61 near Clarksdale, Mississippi. A story was to emerge subsequently, almost certainly apocryphal, that although seriously injured, Bessie might have survived were it not for the refusal of local hospitals to give a black woman emergency aid. It is true that she was very badly hurt and was suffering from a major loss of blood which, if it had been stemmed early enough, might have ensured her survival.  That it wasn't was probably more to do with the confused circumstances that followed her accident, and delayed her transfer from a country highway to a medical center, than to anything more sinister. According to authoritive reports, a passing motorist who happened to be a doctor, rather than calling an ambulance, and with the best of intentions, moved Bessie to the rear seat of his car intending to take her to hospital. Before he could do this, his car was then hit in a separate collision causing more delay. An ambulance was finally summoned but by then Bessie was probably beyond help.

Whatever the circumstances, the accident robbed the blues world of "The Empress of the Blues", perhaps the most charismatic and powerful of the female blues singers. She was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.