The Empress of the Blues Dies: Who killed Bessie Smith?

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Bessie Smith, the greatest singer of the classical blues era was killed in a car accident near Coahoma, Mississippi in 1937. But, why is her death still shrouded in mystery and controversy today?

BESSIE SMITH

BESSIE SMITH

Smith was on her way to a performance in Darling, Mississippi just outside of Memphis, Tennessee on Sept. 26, 1937, at about two in the morning. Richard Morgan, who was Smith’s lover, was driving down a dark country road in their old Packard. They crashed into a truck that was parked on the shoulder of the road to check its tires and just pulled out.

Tire marks at the scene suggested Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of the old Packard. Smith was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window. She took the full brunt of the impact.

BESSIE SMITH AND RICHARD MORGAN IN FRONT OF THE OLD PACKARD

BESSIE SMITH AND RICHARD MORGAN IN FRONT OF THE OLD PACKARD

Smith’s right arm was nearly severed in the accident. Morgan escaped without injuries. A few minutes later, a doctor drove down the same road and stopped to tend to Smith. As he was taking care of her, another car carrying a white couple crashed into the back of the doctor’s car.

After Smith’s death, a myth emerged that she bled to death, after being refused admission to a “whites only” hospital in Clarksdale. Her ambulance drove around in search of a hospital that would treat black patients. The white doctor at the scene ignored Smith, while he tended to the bumps and scrapes of the white couple. The white woman in the second car was rushed to the hospital in the ambulance that had arrived to take Smith away. Smith became a martyr, because she was thought to be a victim of the racist medical system in the Southern U.S.

This version of events originated in an article written in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine, by Jazz writer/producer John Hammond. In addition, this story was the basis for Edward Albee’s 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith. This scenario was easy to believe. Jim Crow racial laws segregated schools, hospitals, public places and public transportation, restrooms, restaurants and drinking fountains for whites and blacks.

The myth perpetuated by the play was largely accepted as fact until convincing evidence to the contrary appeared in the original 1972 edition of Bessie, a biography of the singer. The author Chris Albertson interviewed the white surgeon, Doctor Hugh Smith, who came upon the wreck. The doctor and his friend Henry Broughton were on the way to a fishing trip.

What is known about the incident is that Morgan flagged down Dr.Smith and Broughton, and asked for help. Dr. Smith examined Smith using the headlights of his car.  Her right arm was torn loose at the elbow and the bones in the elbow were shattered.  Her nerves were intact and the artery in her arm was still intact.  A hemorrhage to Smith’s arm did not cause her death. She did not need a tourniquet, so Dr. Smith covered the wound with a handkerchief. However, Smith had severe internal injuries to her chest and abdomen. She was semi-conscious and was having trouble breathing.

Dr. Smith and Broughton were helping Smith when a car travelling at high speed, carrying a white man and a woman crashed into Dr. Smith’s car. The man, who was driving, sustained injuries to his chest from the steering wheel. Two ambulances arrived at the scene within three or four minutes of each other.The first one was called by the truck driver, who left the scene. The second one was called by Broughton, who walked to a nearby house.

Smith was taken by the first ambulance to arrive and was promptly driven directly to a black hospital. In 1937, an ambulance driver would not even think of taking a black patient to a white hospital.  She was most likely in shock, close to death and unconscious, before reaching the hospital. By the time she arrived at the hospital, it was around 11 am. Smith’s arm was amputated and she was pronounced dead at 11:30 am.

Smith was buried near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 4, 1937. Some 7,000 mourners attended her funeral. There is no record of Smith’s exact birth date, but she was about 43 years old.

In the summer of 1970, shortly before her own death from a heroin overdose, the young blues singer Janis Joplin had a headstone made for Smith’s unmarked grave. It reads, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”

Grave Stone bought by Janis Joplin

Grave Stone bought by Janis Joplin

Dr. Smith was an intern at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis at the time of Smith’s accident. When Albertson called the clinic in 1971, Dr. Smith was still there and had long been the head of the clinic. He was tired of reading stories about how Smith bled to death, so he agreed to be interviewed. Albertson sent a list of questions to Dr. Smith and he sent back the answers on a tape.The original audio recording is available in a blog on Alberson’s web site.

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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.

Mother of the Blues: Classical Blues and the U.S. record industry

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If W.C. Handy is the acknowledged “Father of the Blues,” than who is the mother?

Ma Rainey was one of the earliest professional blues singers and part of the first generation of such singers to record their music. She was called the “Mother of the Blues” by her record label and was an important influence on younger blues women like Bessie Smith. More importantly, Rainey was a major influence on the emerging generation of men and women blues singers.

The rise of the first working class group of African-American women to sing their way to fame and fortune in the 1920’s was closely associated with the development of sound recording technology and the creation of the U.S. commercial recording industry..

mamie smith

Mamie Smith was the first African-American female performer to make a vocal blues recording with “Crazy Blues” The song was recorded by Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds on Aug. 10, 1920 in New York on Okeh Record, with a set of songs including “It’s Right Here For You (If You Don’t Get It, ‘Tain’t No Fault of Mine).” The record was a surprise hit and sold a million copies in less than a year.

The record companies were surprised by the large number of records bought by African Americans. The success of the song revealed that African-Americans represented a new lucrative market.

In response, record companies changed their business strategy and searched for black female blues singers. The new strategy increased profitability, because there was a large supply of performers eager to record their songs. These performers were poorly paid for the ownership and distribution rights to their songs. Despite this fact, thousands of black jazz and blues artists were eventually recorded. In the process, record companies documented and preserved one of the richest eras of musical creativity in U.S. history.

The “Mother of the Blues” Ma  Rainey, who is the first great female blues vocalist, began her career in minstrel shows and vaudeville.  As a popular stage entertainer on the Southern theatre circuit, Rainey was the first to put authentic blues into her song repertoire. She performed in a large tent on a stage floor made of wood planks, with lanterns for lighting. The simplicity of the forum taught Rainey how to shout, due to the lack of a microphone.

Rainey signed a recording contract with Paramount in 1923 at the age of 38 years old and was already considered an experienced performer.  Her first recorded song was the traditional number “Bo-Weevil Blues”, cut with Austin and Her Blue Serenaders. Her cheerful and energetic personality comes out loud and clear through the hisses and pops and scratches of these early recordings.

The boll weevil is a beetle measuring an average length of six millimeters, which feeds on cotton buds and flowers. Thought to be native to Central America, it migrated into the U.S from Mexico in the late 19th century and had infested all cotton-growing areas by the 1920s, devastating the industry and the people working in the American south.

One of the most famous and recorded of all blues songs is the traditional, murder-threatening “See See Rider Blues”, which Rainey recorded with Louis Armstrong in 1924. Rainey was the first to record the song, which gave her the copyright. It was one of the best renditions of the more than 100 versions.

In total, Rainey composed or collaborated on at least a third of the 92 songs she recorded for Paramount Records. Her songs were rooted in the experiences of Southern African-Americans. The story telling lyrics were told from the perspective of a very strong and tough woman in turmoil. The subject matter of the songs dealt with abandonment by men, prostitution, lesbianism, promiscuity, sado-masochism, drinking binges, travel, work, prison, superstition and murder.

MaRainey

Rainey gained a powerful command over her audiences with her thick straightened hair sticking out all over, her huge teeth capped in gold, an ostrich plume in her hand, and dressed in a sparkling sequined dress and long triple necklace of shining gold coins. By 1927, Ma was successful enough to buy a Mack bus with her name emblazoned on the side.

Ma Rainey was a strong, independent woman who unapologetic about her unconventional choice of clothes, recreational activities and bed partners. In fact, Rainey was in trouble with the police several times for her lesbian behavior. In 1925, she was arrested for taking part in an orgy at home involving women in her chorus. Bessie Smith bailed her out of jail.

Ma Rainey’s song “Prove It On Me Blues” is a clear indication that she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. The following lyrics show that she is just telling it how it is:

They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.

Sure got to prove it on me.

Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.

They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men

Rainey performed during the first three decades of the 20th century and enjoyed mass popularity during the blues craze of the 1920s. Unlike many other blues musicians, Rainey earned a reputation as a professional on stage and in business. When the blues faded from popularity, Rainey returned to her hometown, Columbus, Georgia in 1935, where she ran two theaters. Ma Rainey died from a heart attack in Rome, Georgia on Dec. 22, 1939.

Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Georgia and was the second of five children of Thomas and Ella Pridgett, from Alabama. She made her performing debut at the age of 14 in a local show called “A Bunch of Blackberries.” In her late teens, she married William Rainey, and both toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

Ma Rainey was inducted into the Blue Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1990, the same year she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “See, See Rider” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2004.

Who’s your daddy? The Father of Blues Music

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The blues is an orphan. No single person can take credit for inventing this unique American musical form. It was born from extreme hardship and suffering. The slave trade murdered, raped and kidnapped Africans and transported them away from their home in the bottom of ships. Slave owners removed the identity of the slaves, by taking away their language, religion, history and names. This is the most serious case of the blues in the history of the world.

The psychological well-being of any child or group of people is dependent on an intimate knowledge of their parents, especially when they have suffered a serious trauma. So, it is important for modern African-American music lovers to know the answer to one simple question:  Who’s your daddy?

W.C. Handy "Father of the Blues”. African-American composer, musician and music publisher.

W.C. Handy “Father of the Blues”. African-American composer, musician and music publisher.

Many people have claimed to be the “Father of the Blues”. But, an African-American composer, musician and music publisher named William Christopher Handy is the man who catapulted the blues into the mainstream of American popular music. W. C. Handy published a song in 1912 called “Memphis Blues.” The song started a blues craze and was popular with both black and white people. It launched the blues as a mass entertainment genre that would transform popular music worldwide.

The song spread by the sale of sheet music and by the fact that every dance band in America was being was playing it. Handy was not rewarded financially, because he sold the rights to the song. As a result, he set up a business to retain ownership of his songs and to create his own publishing venture. Morton Harvey was the first to sing “Memphis Blues” on record. His rendition of the song on Victor records was cut on Oct. 2, 1914 and issued in early 1915. It is the earliest known vocal record of a song with “blues” in the title.

The following version of the Memphis Blues is played and sung by Louis Armstrong, who is founding father of Jazz. It is probably the best version of the song and was Armstrong’s favourite.

Handy’s next hit was called “St. Louis Blues,” which was released in 1914 under the Pace & Handy Music Company.  The song told the story of the hardships Handy experienced in this city. Handy produced other hits including “Yellow Dog Blues” (1914) and “Beale Street Blues” (1916). He would eventually copyright and compose dozens of songs. His business became known as Handy Brothers Music Company, after Pace left the venture.

W.C. Handy said the essence of blues music was revealed to him in 1903, when he was working as a band leader in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was passing through the little town of Tutwiler and ran into an itinerant street guitarist at the train station.

“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages,” said Handy in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues. “As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”

The following video of Bukka White demonstrates the slashing slide style and pounding chords that Handy observed at the train station. White was born on a farm near Houston, Mississippi, Nov. 12, 1909.

The music Handy heard was “weird” because it was new. The man was singing “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog,” which referred to the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley railroads in Moorhead, forty-two miles to the south. The railway was nicknamed the “Dog,” or “Yellow Dog.” Handy later published an adaptation of this song as “Yellow Dog Blues,”

Without getting too technical, Handy imposed a somewhat-artificial structure on blues music, which is known as the 12-bar form with its three-chord basic structure. The blues progression has a distinctive form in lyrics, phrase, chord structure, and duration. In its basic form, it is predominantly based on the I-IV-V chords of a key. The blues can be played in any key.The 12-bar blues or blues changes is one of the most prominent chord progressions in modern popular music.

W.C. Handy was born in Florence, Alabama in 1873, to Elizabeth Brewer and Charles Barnard Handy, who were emancipated slaves. Handy, who was musical from an early age, lived in a log cabin built by his grandfather, a local minister.

W.C Handy at the age of 19 years old

W.C Handy at the age of 19 years old

The young Handy pursued his passion for the cornet, despite opposition of his father. Charles Handy, who was also a minister, discouraged his son from playing secular music. W.C. Handy was supported in his musical pursuits by his maternal grandmother. However, his father paid for organ lessons, which was an instrument approved by the church.

At the age of 15, Handy joined a minstrel show, only to return home when the traveling troupe ran out of money. Later, he studied at the Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, receiving his degree in 1892. He then became a schoolteacher in Birmingham in 1893 and briefly worked in a piping company, but decided to pursue his music career.

WCHandy_w_A&M_College_band_1900

On his second venture from home, Handy formed a band and set off for the Chicago World Fair in 1893, with 20 cents in his pocket.  But, when the fair was postponed, the band was forced to split. Handy experienced sporadic employment, poverty, hunger and homelessness in the next few years and ended up in St. Louis. He tried to forget this experience. However, it was the inspiration for his first great hit.

Handys_Memphis_Orchestra_1918

 

Handy died in March 1958 at the age of 84 at Sydenham Hospital in Harlem of acute bronchial pneumonia. He enjoyed a long and often ground-breaking career as a bandleader, composer, and publisher.

As the Father of the Blues, Handy provided a strong foundation for the development of blues as a popular musical form in America, as well as all other genres of modern African-American music. As a result, Handy is the father of a large family of children, including gospel, spirituals, ragtime, jazz, house, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, rap, rock and roll, funk, hip hop, soul, disco and techno.