Bessie Smith Biography

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Bessie Smith Fine Art Print

The Bessie Smith biography shows that is a shame that at the time of Bessie Smith's birth in Chattanooga, Tennesee, blacks were so little thought of that no record was made; only the date she gave on her marriage license leads us to give the year as 1894. At the time of her death her funeral was among the largest ever held in Philadelphia.

The Bessie Smith biography shows how this "soul sister" claimed the name of the "Empress of the Blues" as she was called at the time, was a powerful, strong-willed woman who made her mark in history through singing the blues in the 1920's and 30;s.

This lady did not play around when it came to belting out a tune! The sister could "sang" (as we say down south!)The road that took her to that title was not an easy one, no romantic " rags to riches" story such as Horatio Alger made popular.

For a young black woman from the South, a far different approach was needed, or a different person, and she most certainly was that. You must remember people... this is the old Jim Crow outh where the bad white boys would be quick to burn or hang you from a tree!

This was a woman who fought for what she believed in, and for what (and whoever) was hers, and backed down before nobody. She had determination which at times became a fiery temper, and no one was exempt from her wrath, which could turn violent; at six feet in height and above 200 pounds in weight, that wrath could be devastating. She could be called a "bad mamma jamma!"

Yet the same experiences and temperament could show as great loyalty to those around her. And the whole range, with all its passsion, were expressed in her songs, and the way she sang them.

Bessie Smith's family was poor, and desperately so after the death of her mother, when Bessie was eight. She began her performing career at age nine-so that her now parentless family could live. To the accompaniment of her brother Andrew on guitar, she danced and sang on street corners for change, despite the disapproval of her older sister Viola, who was now heading the family. Even at that age she "could shake the change out of pockets", as someone remarked; in her full powers, her effect on a crowd was described as "mass hypnotism".

Her professional career began in 1912 when her brother Clarence arranged an audition with Moses Stokes' travelling show, with which Clarence had been working since 1904. In that show she met Ma Rainey, generally considered the first woman blues singer. While the exact musical influence of Ma Rainey is a matter of some debate, there is no doubt that she became Bessie's mentor in the ways of the show world, and perhaps the world more generally.

The next decade of her career is difficult to pin down as to dates and places, as was usual in the profession, but she was definitely building a following for herself. One specific event that did have a long-term effect, was her removal from a job as chorus girl-because her skin was too black. It's a shame the same "not black enough" or "too black" stereotype even exists today folks!

Years later she dealt with a similar situation at the famous Apollo in New York by demanding that a very dark chorus girl be kept-though she accepted a dimming of the lights. As for herself, to say that she was proud to be black would be a gross understatement. She despised blacks that attempted to become like whites. The sister did not care what people thought! She was a true radical mamma... ya dig?

The major breakthrough for Bessie, and for the recording industry, came in 1923. Mamie Smith in 1920 had recorded "Crazy Blues" in 1920, which sold so well (against all expectations) that Columbia set up a separate division for "race" records. Yes, the music business always had a way of segregating it is today folks!

Frank Walker, in charge of the division, had been so impressed years earlier by Bessie's singing, that he sent the pianist Clarence Williams to bring her to New York .

As she arrived, Columbia was on the verge of bankruptcy. Her debut record, "Downhearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues" , sold 780,000 copies in the six months after she recorded the pieces, and helped save Columbia. Over the years she made 160 recordings. At that stage Bessie was receiving an outright $125 per recording; at her height a few years later, she was receiving $2,000/week, and owned her own travelling railway car. During the following ten years she was the foremost recording artist in the world.

This lady didn't let anybody stand in her way in her journey of being heard! What a DIVA!

The decline in BessiE's fortunes from such heights was inevitable at the time. The advent of talking pictures and the radio, on the one hand, severely set back the recording industry, and gave her audience other sources of entertainment. The depression, on the other, struck her industry as well, and reduced the wherewithal of her potential customers. The effect of all this was not as great as might be expected, due to the steadying influence of her companion Richard Morgan.

The lady never rested on her butt...In fact, not only her personal but her professional life seemed on the way to a comeback in the years 1936-37. There apparently were major recording sessions and joint appearances in the works with the upcoming leaders of the musical world (Bennie Goodman, the Basie band), perhaps a film was being planned. In addition to this, a critic of the time observed that the "Empress of the Blues" had gone far beyond such limitations, and was "the greatest artist American jazz ever produced", perhaps transcending even the term "jazz". Ya hear? She was bigger than JAZZ!

Sadly for us all, Bessie Smith was killed in an automobile accident in September, 1937. What might she have accomplished in the coming years......?

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