Rowdy, powerful, and innovative songstress, Bessie Smith dominated the 1920s blues circuit in America. Her soulful drown out voice reinvented the lyrics of many and captivated her audiences. She toured throughout the south and northeast regions building fan base of all races, and breaking strides in the newly developing black record business. Like most artist, people only knew the musical genius of Bessie Smith. The background, personality, and struggle of the woman behind the microphone were not mainstream entertainment news.
Chris Albertson, however, stepped outside the entertainment realm to discover and illustrate the story of the actual woman they called Bessie Smith. During the time of Bessie Smith and shortly there after, writers did not focus on the life the audience did not know. The entertainment aspect of the artist was all that mattered when documenting their history. Albertson took a different approach in unveiling his biography of Bessie Smith. Bessie was written from a behind the scenes perspective.
Albertson interviewed family, friends, associated artist, and inquired old publications from Bessie’s era. The actual commentaries from newscast, interviews, and pictures of documents and people inserted throughout the book gives the reader an even closer insight of Bessie Smith. This biography allows the reader to perhaps venture back into the 1920s and assemble as a fly on a wall throughout the life and career of Bessie Smith. Where most biographies about artist of the 1920s Renaissance begin with their years of stardom, Chris Albertson took the huge leap of tracing Bessie Smith back to birth.
Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in April of 1894, because birth certificates were not common for blacks of this time the actual date the world was blessed with the “Empress of Blues” is not for certain; however the her marriage license accredits the fifteenth of April as this day. Bessie was one of seven children born to William and Laura Smith in a one room cabin of the poor African American section of Chattanooga. She began her life in turmoil of poverty and death.
William, who was a Baptist Preacher, died during Bessie’s infancy, and nine years later, her mother and two brothers were also deceased. These tragic events left the raising of greatness to the oldest Smith daughter, Viola. She took command of the household, raising five children–Bessie, Tinnie, Lulu, Andrew and Clarence Smith–as well as her own daughter. The young Bessie Smith and her brother Andrew earned money by singing on Chattanooga street corners for nickels and dimes. At this point in Bessie’s life, there were not many options for blacks to excel.
Though Chattanooga was a great port city, blacks only had two options: hard underpaid labor, or enter the entertaining traveling shows; Bessie, destined for so much more, however, gained her start in one of these traveling shows. Clarence Smith, her brother, joined the Moses Stokes’ Traveling Show–a touring minstrel and vaudeville show–as a comedian and dancer. In 1912, when Bessie Smith was seventeen, Clarence asked the show’s managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to allow his sister to audition. They agreed, and eventually hired her as a dancer. By this time, Bessie Smith had grown up to become a commanding presence.
She was nearly six feet tall and weighed close to two hundred pounds. Although she began her career as a dancer, she was soon singing in the chorus, and eventually became a featured singer. Bessie was maturing as not jus an artist, but as a performer of many realms. While traveling with the Moses Stokes Traveling Show, Smith met Ma Rainey, one of the most famous blues singers at that time. Ma Rainey’s vocal style was similar to Bessie Simth’s–full-throated, with sophisticated phrases–but Smith’s style was already firmly established by the time she met Rainey.
Rainey took young Bessie under her care and nurtured her as a mother nurtures her child. The relationship between Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey was more personal than stylistic. Bessie soon became a part of the Theatre Owner’s Booking Association (T. O. B. A. ) where she heavily performed at the “81”, toured with Pete Werley’s Florida Blossoms, and the Silas Green show. Not even the effects of WWI, where Albertson shows how the white middle class was steadily rising while the blacks were still increasingly sinking to the bottom, affected Bessie’s onward march to fame.
From 1921 to 1922 Bessie became known all along the eastern seaboard. The year of 1923 marked the beginning of her hiatus. Chris Albertson gives insight into the record business of Bessie’s time noting that it was not a business for the black entertainer. It was ruled by the white businessman who barely knew of black artistry. However, as Bessie’s time drew closer, recording company’s such as Black Swan and The Only Genuine Colored Record appeared putting black singers on market producing “race records”. The records were “underground” records pertaining only to the black “race”.
Other white companies soon jumped on board to exploit the black sound to gain more money. The black entertainer was seen as a “cash crop” that portrayed the image distorted by white minstrels. Bessie Smith, hard and vicious, would vow to enter this business, but would fight to keep her own character and gain accurate funding from swindling producers such as Clarence Williams. The record industry was one that Bessie could handle. She had the sound to produce records; she only lacked a companion for her backbone.
Bessie Smith and Jack Gee, a night watchman, were married in June of 1923 by Reverend C. A. Tindley. After marriage, Bessie’s career began to sky rocket. Smith’s “Downhearted Blues” was a hit, selling 780,000 copies in six months, a staggering amount for 1923, when records were particularly expensive. “Downhearted Blues” was the best-selling blues record of its time. Columbia Records signed Smith to an eight-year contract in which she was paid a minimum of $1,500 a week. Before Smith signed the contract, Gee discovered that Clarence Williams had been cheating Bessie out of her recording fees.
Gee and Smith stormed into William’s office and threatened him with physical violence if he didn’t release Smith from the fraudulent contract Williams had persuaded her to sign. Smith signed what seemed like a lucrative contract with Columbia Records, although she was swindled by them as well–a hidden royalty clause prevented Smith from ever receiving any of the royalties from the sales of her records. By the end of the year, Bessie Smith had five blues hits: “Downhearted Blues”, “Gulf Coast Blues”, “Aggravatin’ Papa”, “Beale Street Mama” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home. No longer was she the same Bessie Smith of Chattanooga, Tennessee recording in “street clothes; she wore elaborate costumes with fringed shawls and dresses, as well as jeweled caps. Bessie Smith’s reputation was becoming just as elaborate as her clothing. She produced sold out shows and many news publications from papers such as the “Defender”, and became the first black artist broadcasted on the mainly white WCA radio station of Memphis, TN. Bessie was making great strides as a black artist, but at the end of the day, she still was black.
Though her sound captured the hearts of all races, her skin colored still did not grant her the treatment at clubs or services at restaurants that she deserved. She could have easily ventured to Europe like her counterpart Josephine Baker, but America was her home and stubborn she would stay to receive treatment only good enough for a black person. She even faced the heads of Klansmen plotting to cave in her tent during a performance. The power of Bessie’s voice was manifested through her actions as she walked clinched fist to the open capture of the Ku Klux Klan. Bessie refused to give in to the wicked surroundings of her career.
While on tour, Smith’s behavior took a turn for the worst. Though she was always feisty, she would now partake in frequent brawls and engaged in casual sex with both men and women and drank heavily. Her marriage to Gee did little to discourage her from such behavior, and Gee and Smith’s fights while on the road became legendary. Smith would often disappear for days on end to saloons and sex clubs termed “buffets”, and this both troubled and angered Gee. When Gee tried to keep close tabs on Smith’s behavior, she resisted, which resulted in bloody brawls amongst the two.
Though Smith demonstrated a very wild side, she was very compassionate. She was very free with her money; giving to any family, friend, or troupe member who was in need. She even took in one of her troupe member’s son as her own, Jack Glee, Jr. Despite her rambunctious ways, dismissals from clubs, and “no shows” to performances, Bessie still possessed a very close relationship with God. Troupe members recall her finding time to go to church during tours, giving God glory, and even attribute gospel hymns to influencing her style of song.
After touring, Bessie returned back to New York where the sound was now changing. Jazz was driving to the forefront pounding blues for behind. Bessie did not let this bother her because she knew there was no sound like hers. It was clear to everyone who heard Bessie Smith sing that she not only had a vocal gift, but that she intuitively knew what to do with it. Her voice was throaty and loud, but unlike many other female blues artists, she didn’t shout. Her timing and phrasing, in particular, were quite sophisticated. One artist recalls her sound being long and drawn out; emphasizing every word.
Bessie Smith was defining blues, in a sense, during this time. She used moans, groans and guttural grunts in her songs, and perfected the call-and-response duet between the vocalist and the lead instrumentalist. Smith’s lyrics were provocative, and spoke of many of the less glamorous aspects of the lives of Southern African-Americans, such as poverty, violence and alcoholism. These lyrics depicted her personality, and she refused to even censor them for whites who might have found them offensive. Despite this, she still gained the white and black audience which gave other black entertainers motivation o express their own styles and not those set forth by white stereotypes. Albertson opens his biography with many artists such as Janis Joplin, Mahalia Jackson, Sidney Bechet, and Ruby Walker whom were all influenced by her style. Ruby Walker, for example, was the niece of Jack Gee. She became fund of Bessie during her Harlem visit in 1923. Walker, was struck by her aunt Bessie’s prodigious voice, and instantly became a fan. Walker knew then that she wanted to be a part of the specialness that her aunt had to offer. Bessie’s years of stardom continued on the uprise.
Her rendition of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” became the standard for that song. This opened up even more opportunities for Smith. She began to introduce her blues style with the new craze of jazz by collaborating with the likes of Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman. In 1925, Columbia records jumped on board with Western Electric and Bessie recorded “Cake Walking Babies”. Though this single was not widely accepted, it crowned her as the first to record ever using a microphone. Shortly after, Jack Glee became sick and she took time off to nurse him.
Once Glee became better he set up a new proposed show, “Steamboat Days” which was to star Bessie. However, Glee had revenge up his sleeve and the money for the show was given to his aspiring mistress Gertrude Saunders. This incident terribly affected Smith, and she, to some, for the first time showed emotion that was transformed into her last hit “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. From here the Great Depression caused the down fall of the record company. Albert portrays the main hub of musical genius, New York City, as plummeting drastically.
Clubs and record companies were closing and people had less money to support record sells. Bessie’s career was never the same. She tried to later revamp her style by trading blues for a newer swing or jazz style, but this was short lived as Bessie Smith died on her way to a performance in a car crash near Clarksdale, MS. There is much controversy over the death of this artist. Maybe if Jim Crow laws did not exist the dying Bessie would not have been left so long without medical care, or maybe it just was her time.
Despite her greatness and innovativeness, Albertson documents Bessie Smith’s funeral as nothing close to a service of her deserving nature. None of the great names who had flourished from her insight even attended. The funeral was marked in Philadelphia by only family and a grave that stood headless for nearly thirty-five years. It was not until years later did Bessie truly receive the acclaim she deserved. Bessie by Chris Albertson allows the memory of Bessie Smith to live own not as just a record, but as a woman of greatness.