Monday, February 28, 2011

Empress of the Blues - The Turbulent Life of Bessie Smith

They called her the "Empress of the Blues." An earthy, hot-tempered, hard-drinking woman who loved wild parties, cheap hooch, and down home southern cooking. Bessie Smith didn't care a fig about what people thought about her. She worked hard and played just as hard. Bessie was black and proud; she never apologized for her color or her background. She was also fearless, at a tent performance in North Carolina in 1927, Bessie discovered that the KKK were preparing to disrupt one of her performances.  She confronted the men, cursing at them to leave. Shocked, they slunk away without doing any damage.

Born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, TN, Bessie Smith was the daughter of a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher who died before she was a baby. Before she was nine years old, Bessie had lost her mother, and a brother as well, leaving her oldest sister Viola to raise five kids on her own. To help out, Bessie and her brother Andrew began singing and dancing on the streets for change. Entertainment was a way out of the dead-end jobs of being a maid or taking in laundry for a living, jobs that made a woman old before her time. Her older brother Clarence had already left home to try and make a living as a performer. When she was 18, Clarence managed to get Bessie an audition with the Moses Stokes Minstrel Troupe as a dancer. She aced the audition, she would be making ten dollars a week in a company that included the notable blues singer Ma Rainey.

Bessie was a natural from the beginning, with a voice so powerful, she didn't need a microphone to be heard.  She sang songs of love gone wrong, unfaithful lovers, the plight of the black woman in a white man's world, poverty, loneliness, and physical abuse. She sang the blues because she lived it. Blues singer Alberta Hunter once said, "Even though Bessie was raucous and loud, she had a tear, no, not a tear, but therewas a misery in what she did." By 1915, Bessie left the Stokes Troupe to join the Theater Owners Bookers Association which was an entertainment circuit for black performers. TOBA was also known as "Tough on Black Asses" for the often brutal touring schedule, and the pittance they were paid. Still touring helped Bessie hone her talent, and helped make her name known throughout the country. By the 1920's Bessie finally hit the big time, starring with Sidney Bechet in the Broadway show How Come? The show didn't last long but it was another notch in Bessie's belt.

Around this time, Bessie met the man of her life Jack Gee, a semi-literate security guard from Yonkers, NY. They were married on June 7, 1923 just before her first recordings were released. Bessie was 28, when she entered a recording studio for the first time in February of 1923.  She was dressed to the nines in a brand new dress bought by Jack who pawned his watch to buy it, a gesture that she never forgot. Technology was still in its infancy so Bessie had to perform take after take until the producer announced they were done.  The two songs recorded that day were "T'aint Nobody's Business If I Do," and "Down Hearted Blues."  That first record sold 780,000 copies in 6 months. She eventually made 160 recordings for Columbia, accomapnied by some of the finest musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong. Bessie's records weren't just popular with blacks but also with white listeners who discovered her music. Bessie was paid by the side, she wasn't royalties the way singers are today, if she had been, she would have raked in millions.

By all accounts, Bessie was a mesmerizing presence on stage. She stood anywhere from 5"9 to 6ft in her bare feet, weighing over 200 pounds.  She loved clothes, decking herself out in the latest fashions. "Bessie was a real woman, all woman, all the femaleness the world ever saw in one sweet package," said her friend Mezz Mezzrow, a fellow musician. She had great big dimples, and a high-voltage magnet of a personality. After the release of her first record, her fee jumped from $50 to $350 a week. A year later, she could command up to $2,000 a week. Bessie spent money as fast as she made it; buying furs and jewels, outfitting her new husband Jack in $300 suits.  She also spread her wealth around, supporting her sisters and their children, buying them houses in Philadelphia.

Bessie and Jack Gee had a turbulent relationship, fighting constantly. Bessie liked to drink, and when she got liquored up, she wasn't afraid to use her fists, or whatever weapon was handy.  Although she was never faithful, having affairs with both men and women, god forbid Jack should look at another woman.  Bessie was a binge drinker, how loved homemade corn liquor (moonshine) over fancier alcohol. No champagne or wine for her (not to mention it was Prohibition!). For days and weeks she'd be sober, but when she fell off the wagon, she might be drunk for days, miss performances or end up in a bar brawl. It wasn't uncommon for Bessie to thrown down hundred dollar bills and close down the joint so that she party privately.

To keep the gravy rolling in, Bessie had to keep touring constantly, which took a toll on her. Jack Gee would beat Bessie up to keep her in line, keep her working. Since black couldn't stay in the same hotels as whites, particularly in the South, Bessie bought a custom-made railroad car, 78 feet long, with 7 staterooms, a kitchen, bathroom and a storeroom. During the winter, she toured theaters and during the summer she did tent tours.  Soon Bessie was the highest paid entertainer of her day. As she became more famous, she didn't put on airs, she was the same down to home earthy woman. But by 1929, the good times were over, not just for Bessie but for the whole country, and so was her marriage to Jack Gee when she discovered that he was using her money to produce a show for a younger, light-skinned beauty named Gertrude Saunders. Although she left him, they were never divorced. Bessie eventually found love again, with an old friend, Richard Morgan who became her manager.

Bessie continued to work but she wasn't pulling down the fees that she made during her hey-day. In 1931, she lost her record contract with Columbia, but she still managed to tour, although she had to sell her luxurious railroad car. Music was changing as well, becoming more uptempo, like swing. Other singers were comiing up, who were more lady-like such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday. Not to be outdone, Bessie adjusted her style and her repertoire. By 1933, she was back recording for Okeh Records, produced by John Hammon. She recorded 4 sides for which she was paid $37.50 a piece.

On September 26, 1937, Bessie was critically injured in a car accident while driving along Route 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale, MS.  Her lover, Richard Morgan was driving, and it appeared that he misjudged the speed of the truck driving in front of them. Bessie was taken to Clarksdale's Afro-American Hospital, but she died the next morning. After her death, rumors began that Bessie died unattended after white hospital refused to treat her. The rumor was fueled by an article written by John Hammond in Down Beat Magazine. The story inspired a one-act play by the young Edward Albee called The Death of Bessie Smith. It wasn't until the 1972 biography by Chris Albertson that the myth was dispelled when he interviewed the doctor  who had arrived at the scene.

While her New York Times obituary was barely a paragraph long, the black community went into mourning.  An estimated 10,000 mourners filed past her coffin in the Philadelphia funeral home where she lay in state, to pay their respects.  Bessie, even in death, was dressed like an Empress, in a long silk gown and slippers that went well with the pink two tone velvet that lined her silver casket. Bessie's grave remained unmarked for 33 years while Jack Gee and her family fought over her estate. It wasn't until 1970 that Janis Joplin and the wife of an NAACP member paid for the stone.

Bessie Smith was an original, who lived a wild tempestuous life. During her lifetime, she rose higher in her profession than any black woman of her time, by totally being herself.

Sources:

Chris Albertson, Bessie (revised and Expanded Edition) Yale University Press, 2003
Andrea Barnet, All Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, Algonquin Books, 2004

8 comments:

Marg said...

What a fascinating life. Thanks so much for the post.

dave hambidge said...

Bessie bought a custom-made railroad car

way to go bessie, style!!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Can you imagine having your own railroad car? No strange people bothering you?" That must be what the Queen experiences when she travels by rail.

Jessica said...

Wow, I got chills reading this! How cool of Janis Joplin & the unnamed wife to buy Bessie's grave stone marker.

xoxo

dirty girl said...

What a powerful storm to rage the country back then. I too got chills reading about Bessie Smith.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Jessica and Dirty Girl. Bessie seems to have been forgotten. Ma Rainey has an August Wilson play, and both Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday have had films made about them but not Bessie. Seriously Monique needs to get on this right now, either her or Queen Latifah.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

A powerful story about one powerful woman!

Lais said...

Great post, I first heard of Bessie from a jazz class I took a few years ago. I didn't know they had an open casket funeral for her though because from what I remembered (and confirmed through wiki), her death in the accident was particularly gruesome: Morgan swerved to the left of the truck, but in doing so the passenger side (where Bessie was) hit the rear of the truck at full speed. The doctor on scene said her entire right side had been crushed, her right arm nearly severed.
A tragic, violent end to a turbulent, but brilliant life. : (