Empress of the Blues: Greatest Singer of the Classic Blues Era

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Ma Rainey was the “Mother of the Blues”, but her popularity was eclipsed by Bessie Smith, who became known as the “Empress of the Blues.”  Smith and Rainey are the two most important figures in the development of what later came to be called classic blues.

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Bessie Smith, who is no relation to Mammie Smith, was signed by Columbia Records in 1923. Smith’s first session for Columbia on Feb.15, 1923 produced a record that coupled “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Downhearted Blues.”  Alberta Hunter the composer of “Downhearted Blues” had already turned into a hit on the Paramount label. However, Smith’s version was wildly popular and sold an estimated 800,000 copies. The success of this hit launched a blues career that would have no parallel during the classic blues era.

Smith saved Paramount records from going bankrupt with her sexually suggestive songs like “Need a little sugar in my Bowl.”

Smith had a powerfully strong voice that recorded very well during the time when recordings were made acoustically. The sheer power of her voice was even more evident, with the coming of electrical recording in 1925. She sang raw, uncompromising country blues inspired by life in the Southern states, in which every day experiences were related in plainspoken language. Ahead of her time, Smith had a way of turning adversity into triumph. Many of her songs are the tales of liberated women.

In a kind of predecessor of today’s music videos, Smith was the star in a two-reel short film called the “St. Louis Blues. The early sound film features Smith in an African-American speakeasy of the prohibition era singing the W. C. Handy standard. She acts out the part of a woman knocked to the ground by a two-timing boyfriend (part 1), and then moves to a bar to sing the blues (part 2). The film is about 16 minutes long.

Smith had a hit with the St. Louis Blues in 1925, which was recorded with Louis Armstrong. W.C. Handy asked her to appear in the movie. Handy co-authored the film and was the musical director. It is the only known film of Bessie Smith, and the soundtrack is her only recording not controlled by Columbia Records. The film, which has an African-American cast, was produced in June 1929 in Astoria, Queens. In 2006, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Although Smith was not a classic beauty, she commanded attention. She was six feet tall, weighed 200 pounds and was a hard drinker that liked to fight and use foul language. Smith had a taste for straight-haired wigs made of horsehair, as well as an array of flamboyant hats. She would also wear her own hair, straightened and pressed back against her head.

The highest-paid black entertainer of her day, Smith earned $2000 dollars a week. She worked as a headliner on the black theatre circuit during the winter months and did tent tours the rest of the year.  Smith eventually bought a custom railroad car for her troupe to travel and sleep in, in order to avoid the racist treatment they received on tour.

Smith married Jack Gee, a security guard in 1922, but their relationship was stormy from the start. Both of them had affairs and for Smith this included other women. In fact, Smith was known for her open lesbian relationships. For example, she had an on-going affair with a chorus girl named Lillian Simpson. Smith would disappear for weeks and end up in jail, only to have Gee bail her out. She said the excitement of young people and parties was part of “the life” on the road. It wasn’t any of his or anybody’s business.

Smith’s song entitled “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” sums up her experience as a black female recording star, who was also bi-sexual.

Smith’s marriage broke up in 1929, after Gee had an affair with the singer Gertrude Saunders. Smith’s career was cut short, by the onset of the Great Depression, which decimated the recording industry. In addition the invention of talking movies signaled the end of her theatre show work, which she relied on. Smith was also an alcoholic. She made her last recording in 1933. This experience is revealed in the song “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

Smith made about 160 recordings for Columbia over her 14-year recording career. She was accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, such as Louis Armstrong  and Fletcher Henderson. As a result, Smith is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era, and along with Louis Armstrong, they were the most important influence on subsequent jazz vocalists.

Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15, 1894. Her parents were Laura Owens and William Smith, a labourer and part-time Baptist minister. She never knew her father, who died when she was very young. By the age of eight, she also lost her mother and brother and was raised by her elder sister Viola.

At the age of nine, Smith and her brother Andrew, took to busking on the street corners of Chattanooga in order to earn money for their impoverished family. She would sing and dance, while her brother played guitar. Her professional career began in 1912, when she was hired as a dancer with the Stokes travelling troupe.She worked alongside legendary blues singer Ma Rainey, who was her mentor.

Smith was critically injured in a car accident on Sept. 26, 1937. She died later in hospital. An estimated 7,000 mourners attended her funeral. She was buried in an unmarked grave until August 1970, when singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, Smith’s former cleaner, shared the cost of a headstone.

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