U3A: Bessie Smith

bessie smith

Bessie Smith was born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894. Her father, a labourer and part-time Baptist preacher, died soon after her birth, leaving her mother to raise her seven children. She grew up in a one-room hut in one of the poorest quarters of Chattanooga, and by the time she was eight or nine. she lost also her mother and two of her brothers. An unmarried aunt raised her and her siblings and she began to perform as a street singer, accompanied on the guitar by one of her younger brothers, in order to earn money for the family.

In 1904, her older brother Clarence joined the Moses Stokes minstrel show, as a dancer and comedian and, in 1912, he convinced the managers to give his talented sister an audition. Later, she worked with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a traveling vaudeville troupe, under Gertrude Ma Rainey, a famous blues singer, who became her friend and mentor.
The minstrel show circuit was a difficult life: late hours, low pay, gambling, fighting, and abusing alcohol and drugs. Smith’s rich, powerful voice was remarkable, and could fill the largest hall without amplification

Her recording career began in 1923 in Philadelphia, where she met Jack Gee, a security guard who later became her husband and manager. They got married just as her first record was being released.
She soon became a successful artist (by the end of the 1920s, she was the highest-paid black performer of her day) and had earned herself the title “Empress of the Blues.” She purchased a custom-designed railroad car for herself and her troupe, which allowed her to bypass some of the negative effects of the racism found in both northern and southern states. Her life on the road was a rough one, full of heavy drinking, casual sex, and frequent fistfights. Jack Gee found his wife’s lifestyle hard to live with. Their marriage was stormy with infidelity on both sides, including numerous female lovers for Bessie. During this time, Bessie adopted the six-year-old son of one of her former chorus girls and named him Jack Gee, Jr.
When she learned of her husband’s affair with another singer, Gertrude Saunders, she ended their relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.

However, at the height of her success, Bessie Smith’s career began to experience difficulties: the combination of radio, talking pictures, and the Great Depression had undermined the entire recording industry and changed musical tastes, favouring jazz and swing instead of vaudeville blues.
Smith continued touring and occasionally sang in clubs, little by little shifting her blues artistry into something that fit the swing era

On September 26, 1937, Smith and her lover Richard Morgan were driving along U.S. Route 61 from a Memphis performance to Darling, Mississippi, for the next day’s show (she was no longer travelling by personal train car) when their car was involved in an accident
Bessie Smith was taken to the G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After her death, an often repeated but now discredited story emerged that she had died as a result of having been refused admission to a whites-only hospital in Clarksdale. According to that version Bessie bled to death because Jim Crow Laws in the South prohibited a white hospital from accepting a black patient.

Her funeral was held in Philadelphia a week later. Gee was unable to purchase a stone for his separated wife although he had collected all the money that was due to Smith for the sales of her records. In 1948, her friends held a Bessie Smith Memorial Concert in New York to raise funds for the headstone, which was a success, but once again Gee pocketed the proceeds and disappeared.

Therefore her grave remained unmarked until a tombstone was erected in August 1970, paid for; among others, by the singer Janis Joplin, shortly before her own death from a heroin overdose. She considered Smith a great influence on her own music. The epitaph they chose reads: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.

8 thoughts on “U3A: Bessie Smith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s