Bessie Smith
Overview
Bessie Smith was an American blues
Blues
Blues is the name given to both a musical form and a music genre that originated in African-American communities of primarily the "Deep South" of the United States at the end of the 19th century from spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads...

 singer.

Sometimes referred to as The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and, along with Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong , nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, was an American jazz trumpeter and singer from New Orleans, Louisiana....

, a major influence on subsequent jazz
Jazz
Jazz is a musical style that originated at the beginning of the 20th century in African American communities in the Southern United States. It was born out of a mix of African and European music traditions. From its early development until the present, jazz has incorporated music from 19th and 20th...

 vocalists.
The 1900 census indicates that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chattanooga is the fourth-largest city in the US state of Tennessee , with a population of 169,887. It is the seat of Hamilton County...

 in July 1892.
Encyclopedia
Bessie Smith was an American blues
Blues
Blues is the name given to both a musical form and a music genre that originated in African-American communities of primarily the "Deep South" of the United States at the end of the 19th century from spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads...

 singer.

Sometimes referred to as The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and, along with Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong , nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, was an American jazz trumpeter and singer from New Orleans, Louisiana....

, a major influence on subsequent jazz
Jazz
Jazz is a musical style that originated at the beginning of the 20th century in African American communities in the Southern United States. It was born out of a mix of African and European music traditions. From its early development until the present, jazz has incorporated music from 19th and 20th...

 vocalists.

Life

The 1900 census indicates that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chattanooga is the fourth-largest city in the US state of Tennessee , with a population of 169,887. It is the seat of Hamilton County...

 in July 1892. However, the 1910 census recorded her birthday as April 15, 1894, a date that appears on all subsequent documents and was observed by the entire Smith family. Census data also contributes to controversy about the size of her family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, while later interviews with Smith's family and contemporaries did not include these individuals among her siblings.

Bessie Smith was the daughter of Laura (née Owens) and William Smith. William Smith was a laborer and part-time Baptist
Baptist
Baptists comprise a group of Christian denominations and churches that subscribe to a doctrine that baptism should be performed only for professing believers , and that it must be done by immersion...

 preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a "minister of the gospel
Gospel
A gospel is an account, often written, that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In a more general sense the term "gospel" may refer to the good news message of the New Testament. It is primarily used in reference to the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John...

", in Moulton, Lawrence, Alabama
Moulton, Alabama
Moulton is a city in Lawrence County, Alabama, and is included in the Decatur Metropolitan Area, as well as the Huntsville-Decatur Combined Statistical Area. As of the 2000 census, the population of the city is 3,260. The city is the county seat of Lawrence County.-Geography:Moulton is located at ...

.) He died before his daughter could remember him. By the time she was nine, she had lost her mother and a brother as well. Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings.

To earn money for their impoverished household, Bessie Smith and her brother Andrew began busking
Busking
Street performance or busking is the practice of performing in public places, for gratuities, which are generally in the form of money and edibles...

 on the streets of Chattanooga as a duo: she singing and dancing, he accompanying her on guitar. Their favorite location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of the city's African-American community.

In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, covertly left home by joining a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud. "That's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child."

In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe. He arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give Smith an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company also included the then unknown singer, Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey was one of the earliest known American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of such singers to record. She was billed as The Mother of the Blues....

. Smith eventually moved on to performing in various chorus lines, making the "81" Theater in Atlanta her home base. There were times when she worked in shows on the black-owned T.O.B.A Theater Owners Booking Association circuit. She would rise to become its biggest star after signing with Columbia Records
Columbia Records
Columbia Records is an American record label, owned by Japan's Sony Music Entertainment, operating under the Columbia Music Group with Aware Records. It was founded in 1888, evolving from an earlier enterprise, the American Graphophone Company — successor to the Volta Graphophone Company...

.

By 1923, when she began her recording career, Smith had taken up residence in Philadelphia. There she met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was released. During the marriage—a stormy one, with infidelity
Infidelity
In many intimate relationships in many cultures there is usually an express or implied expectation of exclusivity, especially in sexual matters. Infidelity most commonly refers to a breach of the expectation of sexual exclusivity.Infidelity can occur in relation to physical intimacy and/or...

 on both sides—Smith became the highest paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own railroad car. Gee was impressed by the money, but never adjusted to show business life, or to Smith's bisexuality
Bisexuality
Bisexuality is sexual behavior or an orientation involving physical or romantic attraction to both males and females, especially with regard to men and women. It is one of the three main classifications of sexual orientation, along with a heterosexual and a homosexual orientation, all a part of the...

. In 1929, when she learned of his affair with another singer, Gertrude Saunders, Bessie Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce
Divorce
Divorce is the final termination of a marital union, canceling the legal duties and responsibilities of marriage and dissolving the bonds of matrimony between the parties...

.

Smith eventually found a common-law
Common-law marriage
Common-law marriage, sometimes called sui juris marriage, informal marriage or marriage by habit and repute, is a form of interpersonal status that is legally recognized in limited jurisdictions as a marriage even though no legally recognized marriage ceremony is performed or civil marriage...

 husband in an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton
Lionel Hampton
Lionel Leo Hampton was an American jazz vibraphonist, pianist, percussionist, bandleader and actor. Like Red Norvo, he was one of the first jazz vibraphone players. Hampton ranks among the great names in jazz history, having worked with a who's who of jazz musicians, from Benny Goodman and Buddy...

's uncle and the antithesis of her husband. She stayed with him until her death.

Career

All contemporary accounts indicate that while Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, she probably helped her develop a stage presence. Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theater. By 1920, Smith had established a reputation in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard
Eastern seaboard
An Eastern seaboard can mean any easternmost part of a continent, or its countries, states and/or cities.Eastern seaboard may also refer to:* East Coast of Australia* East Coast of the United States* Eastern Seaboard of Thailand-See also:...

.

In 1920, sales figures for "Crazy Blues," an Okeh Records
Okeh Records
Okeh Records began as an independent record label based in the United States of America in 1918. From 1926 on, it was a subsidiary of Columbia Records.-History:...

 recording by singer Mamie Smith
Mamie Smith
-External links:* African American Registry* with photos* with .ram files of her early recordings* NPR special on the selection on "Crazy Blues" to the 2005...

 (no relation) pointed to a new market. The recording industry had not directed its product to blacks, but the success of the record led to a search for female blues singers. Bessie Smith was signed by Columbia Records
Columbia Records
Columbia Records is an American record label, owned by Japan's Sony Music Entertainment, operating under the Columbia Music Group with Aware Records. It was founded in 1888, evolving from an earlier enterprise, the American Graphophone Company — successor to the Volta Graphophone Company...

 in 1923 and her first session for Columbia was February 15, 1923. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia's regular A- series; when the label decided to establish a "race records" series, Smith's "Cemetery Blues" (September 26, 1923) was the first issued.

She scored a big hit with her first release, a coupling of "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Downhearted Blues
Downhearted Blues
"Downhearted Blues" is a blues song composed by Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin. The first line immediately sets the theme for the song: "Gee but it's hard to love someone when that someone don't love you"....

", which its composer Alberta Hunter
Alberta Hunter
Alberta Hunter was an American blues singer, songwriter, and nurse. Her career had started back in the early 1920s, and from there on, she became a successful jazz and blues recording artist, being critically acclaimed to the ranks of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith...

 had already turned into a hit on the Paramount
Paramount Records
Paramount Records was an American record label, best known for its recordings of African-American jazz and blues in the 1920s and early 1930s, including such artists as Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson.-Early years:...

 label. Smith became a headliner on the black T.O.B.A. circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter months and doing tent tours the rest of the year (eventually traveling in her own railroad car), Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Columbia nicknamed her "Queen of the Blues," but a PR-minded press soon upgraded her title to "Empress".

She made some 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, most notably Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong , nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, was an American jazz trumpeter and singer from New Orleans, Louisiana....

, James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson was an American pianist and composer...

, Joe Smith, Charlie Green and Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
James Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr. was an American pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer, important in the development of big band jazz and swing music. His was one of the most prolific black orchestras and his influence was vast...

.

Broadway

Smith's career was cut short by a combination of the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

 (which all but put the recording industry out of business) and the advent of "talkies", which spelled the end for vaudeville
Vaudeville
Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill...

. She never stopped performing, however. While the days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, Smith continued touring and occasionally singing in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called Pansy, a musical in which top critics said she was the only asset.

Film

In 1929, Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler titled St. Louis Blues
St. Louis Blues (1929 film)
St. Louis Blues is a two-reel short film starring Bessie Smith. The early sound film features Smith in an African-American speakeasy of the prohibition era singing the W. C. Handy standard, "St. Louis Blues"...

, based on W. C. Handy
W. C. Handy
William Christopher Handy was a blues composer and musician. He was widely known as the "Father of the Blues"....

's song of the same name. In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy
Dudley Murphy
Dudley Murphy was an American film director. Murphy was born on July 10, 1897 in Winchester, Massachusetts...

 and shot in Astoria
Astoria, Queens
Astoria is a neighborhood in the northwestern corner of the borough of Queens in New York City. Located in Community Board 1, Astoria is bounded by the East River and is adjacent to three other Queens neighborhoods: Long Island City, Sunnyside , and Woodside...

, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
James Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr. was an American pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer, important in the development of big band jazz and swing music. His was one of the most prolific black orchestras and his influence was vast...

's orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, pianist James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson was an American pianist and composer...

 and a string section—a musical environment radically different from any found on her recordings.

Swing era

In 1933, John Hammond
John H. Hammond
John Henry Hammond II was an American record producer, musician and music critic from the 1930s to the early 1980s...

, who also mentored Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed "Lady Day" by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing...

, asked Smith to record four sides for Okeh (which had been acquired by Columbia Records in 1925). He claimed to have found her in semi-obscurity, working as a hostess in a speakeasy on Philadelphia's Ridge Avenue. Bessie Smith worked at Art's Cafe on Ridge Avenue, but not as a hostess and not until the summer of 1936. In 1933, when she made the Okeh sides, Bessie was still touring. Hammond was known for his selective memory and gratuitous embellishments.

Bessie Smith was paid a non-royalty fee of $37.50 for each selection and these Okeh sides, which were her last recordings. Made November 24, 1933, they serve as a hint of the transformation she made in her performances as she shifted her blues artistry into something that fit the "swing era
Swing Era
The Swing era was the period of time when big band swing music was the most popular music in the United States. Though the music had been around since the late 1920s and early 1930s, being played by black bands led by such artists as Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Moten, Ella Fitzgerald,...

". The relatively modern accompaniment is notable. The band included such swing era
Swing Era
The Swing era was the period of time when big band swing music was the most popular music in the United States. Though the music had been around since the late 1920s and early 1930s, being played by black bands led by such artists as Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Moten, Ella Fitzgerald,...

 musicians as trombonist
Trombone
The trombone is a musical instrument in the brass family. Like all brass instruments, sound is produced when the player’s vibrating lips cause the air column inside the instrument to vibrate...

 Jack Teagarden
Jack Teagarden
Weldon Leo "Jack" Teagarden , known as "Big T" and "The Swingin' Gate", was an influential jazz trombonist, bandleader, composer, and vocalist, regarded as the "Father of Jazz Trombone".-Early life:...

, trumpet
Trumpet
The trumpet is the musical instrument with the highest register in the brass family. Trumpets are among the oldest musical instruments, dating back to at least 1500 BCE. They are played by blowing air through closed lips, producing a "buzzing" sound which starts a standing wave vibration in the air...

er Frankie Newton
William Frank Newton
William Frank Newton was a trumpeter from Emory, Virginia. He played in several New York bands in the 1920s and 1930s, including bands led by Sam Wooding, Chick Webb, Charlie Barnet, Andy Kirk and Charlie "Fess" Johnson. In the 1940s he played with bands led by Lucky Millinder and Pete Brown...

, tenor saxophonist
Tenor saxophone
The tenor saxophone is a medium-sized member of the saxophone family, a group of instruments invented by Adolphe Sax in the 1840s. The tenor, with the alto, are the two most common types of saxophones. The tenor is pitched in the key of B, and written as a transposing instrument in the treble...

 Chu Berry, pianist
Piano
The piano is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It is one of the most popular instruments in the world. Widely used in classical and jazz music for solo performances, ensemble use, chamber music and accompaniment, the piano is also very popular as an aid to composing and rehearsal...

 Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, and bassist
Bassist
A bass player, or bassist is a musician who plays a bass instrument such as a double bass, bass guitar, keyboard bass or a low brass instrument such as a tuba or sousaphone. Different musical genres tend to be associated with one or more of these instruments...

 Billy Taylor
Billy Taylor
Billy Taylor was an American jazz pianist, composer, broadcaster and educator. He was the Robert L. Jones Distinguished Professor of Music at East Carolina University in Greenville, and since 1994, he was the artistic director for jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in...

. Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benjamin David “Benny” Goodman was an American jazz and swing musician, clarinetist and bandleader; widely known as the "King of Swing".In the mid-1930s, Benny Goodman led one of the most popular musical groups in America...

, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters
Ethel Waters
Ethel Waters was an American blues, jazz and gospel vocalist and actress. She frequently performed jazz, big band, and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, although she began her career in the 1920s singing blues.Her best-known recordings includes, "Dinah", "Birmingham Bertha",...

 in the adjoining studio, dropped by and is barely audible on one selection. Hammond was not entirely pleased with the results, preferring to have Smith revisit her old blues groove. "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)", both written by Wesley Wilson
Wesley Wilson
Wesley Wilson was an American blues and jazz singer and songwriter. His own stage craft, plus the double act with his wife and musical partner, Coot Grant, was popular with African American audiences in the 1910s, 1920s and early 1930s.His stage names included Kid Wilson, Jenkins, Socks, and...

, continue to be ranked among her most popular recordings.

Death

On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61
U.S. Route 61
U.S. Route 61 is the official designation for a United States highway that runs from New Orleans, Louisiana, to the city of Wyoming, Minnesota. The highway generally follows the course of the Mississippi River, and is designated the Great River Road for much of its route. As of 2004, the highway's...

 between Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis is a city in the southwestern corner of the U.S. state of Tennessee, and the county seat of Shelby County. The city is located on the 4th Chickasaw Bluff, south of the confluence of the Wolf and Mississippi rivers....

, and Clarksdale, Mississippi
Clarksdale, Mississippi
Clarksdale is a city in Coahoma County, Mississippi, United States. The population was 20,645 at the 2000 census. It is the county seat of Coahoma County....

. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving and, probably mesmerized by the long stretch of straight road, misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Tire marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith's old Packard. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.

The first people on the scene were a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation), and his fishing partner Henry Broughton. In the early 1970s, Dr. Smith gave a detailed account of his experience to Bessie's biographer Chris Albertson. This is the most reliable eyewitness testimony about the events surrounding Bessie Smith's death.

After stopping at the accident scene, Dr. Smith examined Bessie Smith, who was lying in the middle of the road with obviously severe injuries. He estimated she had lost about a half-pint of blood, and immediately noted a major traumatic injury to her right arm; it had been almost completely severed at the elbow. But Dr. Smith was emphatic that this arm injury alone did not cause her death. Although the light was poor, he observed only minor head injuries. He attributed her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a "sideswipe" collision.

Broughton and Dr. Smith moved the singer to the shoulder of the road. Dr. Smith dressed her arm injury with a clean handkerchief and asked Broughton to go to a house about 500 feet off the road to call an ambulance.

By the time Broughton returned approximately 25 minutes later, Bessie Smith was in shock. Time passed with no sign of the ambulance, so Dr. Smith suggested that they take her into Clarksdale in his car. He and Broughton had almost finished clearing the back seat when they heard the sound of a car approaching at high speed. Dr. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the oncoming car failed to stop and plowed into the doctor's car at full speed. It sent his car careening into Bessie Smith's overturned Packard, completely wrecking it. The oncoming car ricocheted off Dr. Smith's car into the ditch on the right, barely missing Broughton and Bessie Smith.

The young couple in the new car did not have life-threatening injuries. Two ambulances arrived on the scene from Clarksdale; one from the black hospital, summoned by Mr. Broughton, the other from the white hospital, acting on a report from the truck driver, who had not seen the accident victims.

Bessie Smith was taken to Clarksdale's G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After Smith's death, an often repeated but now discredited story emerged about the circumstances; namely, that she had died as a result of having been refused admission to a "whites only
White people
White people is a term which usually refers to human beings characterized, at least in part, by the light pigmentation of their skin...

" hospital in Clarksdale. Jazz writer/producer John Hammond
John H. Hammond
John Henry Hammond II was an American record producer, musician and music critic from the 1930s to the early 1980s...

 gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat
Down Beat
Down Beat is an American magazine devoted to "jazz, blues and beyond" to indicate its expansion beyond the jazz realm which it covered exclusively in previous years. The publication was established in 1934 in Chicago, Illinois...

magazine. The circumstances of Smith's death and the rumor promoted by Hammond formed the basis for Edward Albee
Edward Albee
Edward Franklin Albee III is an American playwright who is best known for The Zoo Story , The Sandbox , Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , and a rewrite of the screenplay for the unsuccessful musical version of Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's . His works are considered well-crafted, often...

's 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith
The Death of Bessie Smith
The Death of Bessie Smith is a one-act play by American playwright Edward Albee, written in 1959 and premiered in West Berlin the following year. The play is based around a series of conversations...

.

"The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital, you can forget that." Dr. Smith told Albertson. "Down in the Deep South
Deep South
The Deep South is a descriptive category of the cultural and geographic subregions in the American South. Historically, it is differentiated from the "Upper South" as being the states which were most dependent on plantation type agriculture during the pre-Civil War period...

 cotton country, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks."
Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia on Monday, October 4, 1937. Her body was originally laid out at Upshur's funeral home. As word of her death spread through Philadelphia's black community, the body had to be moved to the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday, October 3. Contemporary newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearby Sharon Hill
Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania
Sharon Hill is a borough in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, United States. The population was 5,468 at the 2000 census.-Geography:Sharon Hill is located at ....

. Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.

The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970, when a tombstone—paid for by singer Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin
Janis Lyn Joplin was an American singer, songwriter, painter, dancer and music arranger. She rose to prominence in the late 1960s as the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company and later as a solo artist with her backing groups, The Kozmic Blues Band and The Full Tilt Boogie Band...

 and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith—was erected.

Dory Previn
Dory Previn
Dory Previn, née Dorothy Veronica Langan , is an American lyricist, singer-songwriter and poet.During the late 1950s and 1960s she was a lyricist for motion picture songs, and with her first husband André Previn received several Academy Award nominations...

 wrote a song of Janis Joplin and the tombstone called "Stone for Bessie Smith" on her album Mythical Kings and Iguanas
Mythical Kings and Iguanas
Mythical Kings and Iguanas was the second solo LP by Dory Previn, released in early 1971. Following her successful debut as a confessional singer-songwriter the previous year, it concentrated on the quest for spiritual fulfilment and a loving relationship....

.

The Afro-American Hospital, now the Riverside Hotel
Riverside Hotel (Clarksdale)
Riverside Hotel is a hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi in operation since 1944. It was the fourth marker place on the Mississippi Blues Trail. Famed for providing lodging for such blues artists as Sonny Boy Williamson II, Ike Turner, and Robert Nighthawk. It was previously the G.T. Thomas Hospital...

 in Clarksdale, was the site of the dedication of the fourth historic marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail
Mississippi Blues Trail
The Mississippi Blues Trail, created by the Mississippi Blues Commission, is a project to place interpretive markers at the most notable historical sites related to the growth of the blues throughout the state of Mississippi. The trail extends from the border of Louisiana in southern Mississippi...

.

Grammy Hall of Fame

Recordings of Bessie Smith were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame
Grammy Hall of Fame Award
The Grammy Hall of Fame Award is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance"...

. This special Grammy Award was established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance."
Bessie Smith: Grammy Hall of Fame Award
Grammy Hall of Fame Award
The Grammy Hall of Fame Award is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance"...

Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1923 "Downhearted Blues
Downhearted Blues
"Downhearted Blues" is a blues song composed by Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin. The first line immediately sets the theme for the song: "Gee but it's hard to love someone when that someone don't love you"....

"
Blues (Single) Columbia 2006
1925 "St. Louis Blues" Jazz (Single) Columbia 1993
1928 "Empty Bed Blues" Blues (Single) Columbia 1983

National Recording Registry

In 2002 Smith's recording of the single, "Downhearted Blues
Downhearted Blues
"Downhearted Blues" is a blues song composed by Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin. The first line immediately sets the theme for the song: "Gee but it's hard to love someone when that someone don't love you"....

", was included by the National Recording Preservation Board
National Recording Preservation Board
The United States National Recording Preservation Board selects recorded sounds for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry. The National Recording Registry was initiated to maintain and preserve "sound recordings that are culturally, historically or aesthetically...

 in the Library of Congress
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, de facto national library of the United States, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Located in three buildings in Washington, D.C., it is the largest library in the world by shelf space and...

' National Recording Registry. The board selects songs on an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

"Downhearted Blues" was included in the list of Songs of the Century
Songs of the Century
The "Songs of the Century" list is part of an education project by the Recording Industry Association of America , the National Endowment for the Arts, and Scholastic Inc. that aims to "promote a better understanding of America’s musical and cultural heritage" in American schools...

by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment for the Arts
The National Endowment for the Arts is an independent agency of the United States federal government that offers support and funding for projects exhibiting artistic excellence. It was created by an act of the U.S. Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government. Its current...

 in 2001. It is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is a museum located on the shore of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, United States. It is dedicated to archiving the history of some of the best-known and most influential artists, producers, engineers and others who have, in some major way,...

 as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock 'n' roll.

Inductions

Year Inducted Category Notes
2008 Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC
1989 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award is awarded by the Recording Academy to "performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording."...

1989 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame "Early influences"
1981 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame
1980 Blues Hall of Fame
Blues Hall of Fame
The Blues Hall of Fame is a listing of people who have significantly contributed to blues music. Started in 1980 by the Blues Foundation, it honors those who have performed, recorded, or documented blues.-1980:*Big Bill Broonzy*Willie Dixon*John Lee Hooker...



U.S. Postage Stamp
Year Issued Stamp USA
1994 29 cents Commemorative stamp U.S. Postal Stamps

Digital remastering

Technical faults in the majority of her original gramophone record
Gramophone record
A gramophone record, commonly known as a phonograph record , vinyl record , or colloquially, a record, is an analog sound storage medium consisting of a flat disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove...

ings—especially variations in recording speed, which raised or lowered the apparent pitch
Pitch (music)
Pitch is an auditory perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale.Pitches are compared as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies,...

 of her voice, misrepresented the "light and shade" of her phrasing, interpretation and delivery. They altered the apparent key
Key signature
In musical notation, a key signature is a series of sharp or flat symbols placed on the staff, designating notes that are to be consistently played one semitone higher or lower than the equivalent natural notes unless otherwise altered with an accidental...

 of her performances (sometimes raised or lowered by as much as a semitone
Semitone
A semitone, also called a half step or a half tone, is the smallest musical interval commonly used in Western tonal music, and it is considered the most dissonant when sounded harmonically....

.) The fact that the "centre hole" in some of the master recordings had not been in the true middle of the master disc meant that there were wide variations in tone, pitch, key and phrasing, as commercially released records revolved around the spindle.

Given those historic limitations, the current digitally remastered
Remaster
Remaster is a word marketed mostly in the digital audio age, although the remastering process has existed since recording began...

 versions of her work deliver significant, very positive differences in the sound quality of Smith's performances. Some critics believe that the American Columbia Records
Columbia Records
Columbia Records is an American record label, owned by Japan's Sony Music Entertainment, operating under the Columbia Music Group with Aware Records. It was founded in 1888, evolving from an earlier enterprise, the American Graphophone Company — successor to the Volta Graphophone Company...

 compact disc releases are somewhat inferior to subsequent transfers made by the late John R.T. Davies
John R.T. Davies
John R.T. Davies was a remastering engineer of classic jazz records. He was also a trombonist, trumpeter and alto saxophonist and a member of the 1960s jazz revival band The Temperance Seven.Davies was born in Wivelsfield, Sussex...

 for Frog Records
Frog Records
Frog Records is a UK classic jazz reissue label founded by David French . The company has issued about three dozen CDs, many remastered by John R.T. Davies, including the complete recordings of Bessie Smith....

.

Popular culture

  • The 1948 short story "Blue Melody
    Blue Melody
    "Blue Melody" is a short story by J. D. Salinger, first published in the September 1948 issue of Cosmopolitan. The tragic tale of an African-American jazz singer, the story was inspired by the life of Bessie Smith and was originally titled "Scratchy Needle on a Phonograph Record." Cosmopolitan...

    " by J.D. Salinger and the 1959 play The Death of Bessie Smith
    The Death of Bessie Smith
    The Death of Bessie Smith is a one-act play by American playwright Edward Albee, written in 1959 and premiered in West Berlin the following year. The play is based around a series of conversations...

    by Edward Albee
    Edward Albee
    Edward Franklin Albee III is an American playwright who is best known for The Zoo Story , The Sandbox , Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , and a rewrite of the screenplay for the unsuccessful musical version of Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's . His works are considered well-crafted, often...

     both deal with Smith's death.
  • Jack Peñate's song 'Learning Lines' off his first album refers to 'Bessie Smith, sings the blues' in its chorus.

Further reading

  • Albertson, Chris
    Chris Albertson
    Christiern Gunnar Albertson is a New York City-based jazz journalist, writer and record producer.He was born in Reykjavík and educated in Iceland, Denmark and England before studying commercial art in Copenhagen...

    , Liner notes, Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings, Volumes 1 - 5, Sony Music Entertainment, 1991.
  • Albertson, Chris, Bessie (Revised and Expanded Edition), Yale University Press (New Haven), 2003. ISBN 0-300-09902-9.
  • Brooks, Edward, The Bessie Smith Companion: A Critical and Detailed Appreciation of the Recordings, Da Capo Press (New York), 1982. ISBN 0-306-76202-1.
  • Davis, Angela Y.
    Angela Davis
    Angela Davis is an American political activist, scholar, and author. Davis was most politically active during the late 1960s through the 1970s and was associated with the Communist Party USA, the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panther Party...

    , Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, Pantheon Books (New York), 1998. ISBN 0-679-45005-X.
  • Eberhardt, Clifford, Out of Chattanooga, Ebco (Chattanooga), 1994.
  • Feinstein, Elaine
    Elaine Feinstein
    Elaine Feinstein is a poet, novelist, short-story writer, playwright, biographer and translator.-Biography:...

    , Bessie Smith, Viking (New York), 1985, ISBN 0-670-80642-0.
  • Grimes, Sara, Backwaterblues: In Search of Bessie Smith, Rose Island Pub. (Amherst), 2000, ISBN 0-9707089-0-4.
  • Kay, Jackie
    Jackie Kay
    Jackie Kay MBE is a Scottish poet and novelist.-Biography:Jackie Kay was born in Glasgow in 1961 to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, Jonathan C. Okafor who later became a prominent tropical plant taxonomist...

    , Bessie Smith, Absolute (New York), 1997. ISBN 1-899791-55-8.
  • Manera, Alexandria, Bessie Smith, Raintree (Chicago), 2003. ISBN 0-7398-6875-6.
  • Martin, Florence, Bessie Smith, Editions du Limon (Paris), 1994. ISBN 2-907224-31-X.
  • Oliver, Paul
    Paul Oliver
    -Biography:Oliver was a researcher at the Oxford Institute for Sustainable Development , and from 1978-88 was Associate Head of the School of Architecture. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Gloucestershire...

    , Bessie Smith, Cassell (London), 1959.
  • Palmer, Tony, All You Need is Love: The Story of Popular Music, Grossman Publishers/Viking Press (New York), 1976. ISBN 0-670-11448-0.
  • Welding, Pete; Byron, Tony (eds.), Bluesland: Portraits of Twelve Major American Blues Masters, Dutton (New York), 1991. ISBN 0-525-93375-1.

External links



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