To say she had humble beginnings puts it mildly. In childhood, she danced on street corners for coins to help feed her family. But when chance intervened, plucked from the streets to the carnival stage, Bessie Smith became a star with a voice that refuses to sound dated nine decades later.
According to Chris Albertson, author of her biography, Bessie, Smith arrived at her blues style independently. "I am almost certain that Ma Rainey got Bessie on the blues track, but regarding her style, while she may have picked up a little here and there, she certainly had her own approach to it. There wasn't much outside influence."
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894, Bessie Smith was orphaned at an early age and cared for by siblings. Her brother Clarence helped get her a job in the chorus line of a traveling minstrel show, the Moss Stokes Company, where she met her mentor, Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey.
After scoring her first big hit record in 1923 with "Down Hearted Blues," which sold over 800,000 copies, Bessie went on to record classic blues with the most notable jazz artists of the 1920s—among them, Clarence Williams, James P. Johnson, Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and Louis Armstrong, with whom she recorded the timeless "St. Louis Blues."
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, it's the story of Bessie Smith, 'The Empress of the Blues,' as New Orleans vocalist Topsy Chapman joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band on stage at The Landing. "Bessie was a queen," said Ruby Walker, her niece by marriage. "I mean the people looked up to her and worshipped her like she was a queen. ...She was that kind of woman, a strong, beautiful woman with a personality as big as a house."
By the early 1930s, the Depression had decimated the recording business and Bessie Smith's brand of classic blues had all but gone out of style. And Smith was beginning to adjust her repertoire to the sophistication of the Swing Era.
Chris Albertson states,
"Lionel Hampton was doing a series of small group recordings for RCA Victor at the time, and he told me he had planned to use her on some of them. By this time, she had changed her appearance. She stopped wearing wigs and swept her hair back, wore beautiful, plain evening gowns, and sang songs like "Tea for Two" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." During this time she performed at Connie's Inn for twelve weeks, and many people heard her and saw that she had transformed herself. So, there is no question that, had she lived, she would have been a part of the Swing Era."
Bessie Smith's life was cut short in September 1937. Early one Sunday morning, heading out of Memphis after a late night performance, on the road to Clarksdale in her old Packard with her friend Richard Morgan at the wheel, the road was dark and they hit a truck. Bessie didn't survive.
Photo credit for home page teaser image: Bessie Smith. Photo courtesy Frank Driggs Collection
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Pick © 2012