Blues & Bessie Smith
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Bessie Smith though born into poverty, was one of the most famous and influential female singers in the 19th century who was born around 15th April 1894 and died on 26th September 1937. The exact birth date of Bessie is not known “due to the apathy possessed by the department of States Record against “Negro” birth records” (Chris 33). Bessie spent her early years in Chattanooga, Tennessee where she lived in a small one-room shack together with her siblings and parents. Her childhood was filled with calamities as her father who was a Baptist Minister on part time basis died while she was still an infant and at least two of her own brothers and her mother passed away when she was only nine years old. Despite many problems and abject poverty, Bessie was able to attend school and she is well noted to have completed up to eighth grade.
It is during this time that Bessie is said to have commenced her entertainment career. She was a very strong, independent, and a powerful vocalist singer that could uniquely sing in both blues and jazz styles. Bessie was referred to as “Empress of Blues” and she successfully revolutionized blues music vocal end in mid 1920s with her unique voice, which has greatly influenced generations of blues musicians. Through popular recordings and busy countrywide touring and performing schedule, Smith gave blues a regal and raw poignancy together with unique marketability. Here impassioned delivery and feverish growls informed majority of facets of the African American music spanning across many years from early singers to the current singers.
Smith began her successful performing career at a tender age of nine years as a way of supporting her parentless family after the death of her parents. Accompanied by her younger brother Andrew on a guitar, Smith danced and sang on various street corners, collecting spare change that was thrown at them by the people passing by .She did this despite a lot of disapproval from her older sister named Viola who was now taking care and heading the family. Even at that tender age she “could easily shake the change out of many people’s pockets due to her unique entertainment powers which had a tremendously effect on the crowd (Chris 41).
At a tender age as a young girl, smith auditioned in many local amateur Competitions in Vaudeville. Bessie’s professional career commenced in 1912 when her older brother named Clarence, organized an audition for her in Moses Stokes’ famous travelling show. Clarence had been working with this travelling show since 1904 and he shows it as an opportunity for her talented sister to advance her talent. By the age of 18 years, Smith was successfully performing as a dancer and singer together with another powerful blues singer Ma Rainey who she met in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels where they performed many travelling shows together for several years.
Ma Reiney is generally considered as the very first female blues singer and there is no doubt that Reiney became Smith’s mentor in her entertainment career. Drawing on a unique and full arsenal of diverse talents such as dancing, slapstick comedy, and singing, Smith was a unique and consummate singer receiving fame and many fans all over this region. She mostly toured the “Theatre Owners Booking Association” (T.O.B.A) circuit, a theater that exclusively catered to the African American entertainers during those days of severe legal segregation. Smith was a quick learner and she soon surpassed her own mentor becoming successful and famous.
It is quiet difficult to pin down Bessie’s next decade as to exact places and dates, but Smith was definitely building a unique following for herself. By 1920, Smith was famous and starring in her own shows in the Atlantic City, and after three years the singer transferred to the New York City. Smith went solo and then signed a remarkable contract with Columbia Records and became very famous with her debut album in 1923 that was a rendition of the “Downhearted Blues” by Alberta Hunter. This song together with other songs such as “Gulf Coast Blues”, “Jealous Hearted Blues”, and the “Cold in Hand Blues” sold excellently making her famous and a major attraction to millions of people in Vaudeville and beyond. Her music records especially the “Down Hearted Blues” was reported to have sold more than 750,000 copies, which was a remarkable record back, then (Jasen and Gene 281).
Most of Smith’s songs were about oppression poverty, and unrequited love that touched thousands of hearts. Smith continued to record many songs throughout 1920s; she became the highest paid black entertainer at that time. Her big celebrity status allowed opportunities for her to perform alongside other famous and talented musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Fletcher Henderson (Chris 38). At this stage, she was receiving huge pays, she owned her own unique travelling railway motor vehicle, and she was definitely the foremost recording blues artist at that time.
In the mid 1920s, Smith’s annual Harlem Florics tents show was a famous and big hit. However, there is one specific entertainment event that impacted a long term negative effect on Bessie life which was her dismissal from an entertainment job as a chorus-girl because her own skin was describe as too black. Years later Smith dealt with same situations at the big and famous Apollo located in Ney York City by demanding that an extremely dark chorus girl be retained, this affected her career largely. Thus, saying that Smith was proud to be a black woman would be a very gross understatement. Smith despised all black people who attempted to become like the white people. Smith starred in a 17-minute film titled St. Louis Blues in 1929. This is the only existing footage known of this singer.
Sadly, the decline in Smiths’s fortunes from such greater hits started in early 1930s as public’s interests in jazz and blues singers waned, which made smith to be dropped by her music label in early 1931. This was mainly contributed by the advent of the radio and talking pictures, which severely affected and set back the country’s recording industry, and gave her audience alternative and better sources of their entertainment. In addition, depression that contributed to the crash of stock market in 1929 also struck Smith’s industry by greatly reducing the wherewithal of the singer’s potential customers thus greatly reducing Smith’s income. Bessie was also having problems with alcoholism, failed marriage, and detrimental emotional problems that tainted her lucrative career. She returned to her own roots and she started singing in the small local club earning a pittance.
This was very different from Smith’s peak when she was performing in theaters and in elegant hotel ballrooms all over the country. However, Smith was rediscovered by the talent scout from Columbia Records named John Hammond and she recorded together with bandleader named Benny Goodman in the year 1933. She also played the New York Apollo in 1935. Unfortunately, Smith tragically died in September 1937 due to severe injuries from a car accident before she could launch a successful comeback. Smith’s unique and best performances are available and can be clearly heard from recorded albums such as, “a two-CD that have thirty six songs referred to as ‘The Essential Bessie Smith’ (Jasen and Gene 275). However, Smith’s legend began to uniquely grow even after her premature death. Numerous books, stage plays, songs, and essays have been written about her unique extraordinary and tragically brief career.