Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Life, Death, and Music of Bessie Smith

Blues singer Bessie Smith is one of the finest vocalists in the history of American popular music. Her voice was a powerful and versatile instrument that she employed in a variety of musical contexts from deep blues to pop tunes. 

Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894, and would earn the title of “Empress of the Blues.” As a child, she busked with her brother on the streets of Chattanooga’s African-American neighborhoods to earn extra money for her impoverished family. When her elder brother, Clarence, returned home from a stint with Moses Stokes’s traveling musical troupe in 1912, he informed Bessie that he had arranged an audition for her as a singer with the troupe. Following her audition, Bessie was hired as a dancer because the troupe already had another singer, Ma Rainey, who in later years would become known as the “Mother of the Blues.”

After years of traveling with the Stokes troupe and performing in various chorus lines, Bessie Smith signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and released her first hit, “Downhearted Blues,” in 1923. By the time she had begun recording, Bessie had settled in Philadelphia and had married.

Smith would record 160 sides for Columbia, and she would eventually become the highest paid African-American entertainer of her day. The sidemen for her Columbia recordings included legends of the era such as Louis Armstrong, Joe Smith, Fletcher Henderson, and James P. Johnson. Among Smith’s famous sides from the Twenties are “St. Louis Blues,” “Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan),” “T’Aint Nobody’s Business,” “You’ve Been a good Old Wagon,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

By the Thirties, the depression had rendered blues recordings unappealing to consumers for financial and aesthetic reasons. Smith’s career declined to the point where she had been reduced to working as a hostess in a Philadelphia speakeasy. It was here, in 1933, that legendary music scout John Hammond found her and convinced her to record again.

Hammond arranged some of the best jazz musicians of the day to back her on recordings which were more in tune with the popular style of swing. Trombonist Jack Teagarden, saxophonist Chu Berry, and pianist Buck Clayton among others accompanied Smith on the sessions which yielded several of her best ever recordings, including “Gimme a Pigfoot,” “Do Your Duty,” and Take Me for a Buggy Ride,”

Smith’s death in 1938 from a car accident near Clarksdale, Mississippi cut her life far too short. For many years, the public had been led to believe that Smith, a black woman, bled to death because she had been denied access to a “whites only” hospital, and Edward Albee had even written a play about it. In fact, she had been brought directly to a black hospital, but died due to severe trauma suffered in the accident.

Smith’s best recordings are her sides with Columbia during the Twenties. Especially notable is a session from 1925 with Louis Armstrong on cornet that yielded “St. Louis Blues” and “Reckless Blues” The pairing of the best blues singer and the best jazz musician supported by the organ of Freddie Longshaw resulted in two of the best sides in the history of jazz and blues.

Any compilation of her music is worth acquiring, and “The Collection” (1989), “The Essential Bessie Smith” (1997) is a good starting point for the uninitiated. In the early Seventies, Columbia Records released a superb four-volume retrospective of her career, “Empty Bed Blues” (1970), “The World’s Greatest Blues Singer” (1970), “Any Woman’s Blues” (1971), and “The Empress” (1971). Another superb set is “The Complete Recordings Volume 1” (1991), “The Complete Recordings Volume 2” (1991), “The Complete Recordings Volume 3” (1992) and “The Complete Recordings Volume 4” (1993).

The Empress of the Blues