In her childhood in Tennessee, Bessie Smith sang on street corners before joining a touring black minstrel show as a dancer. Also in the show was Ma Rainey, and before long the young newcomer was also singing the blues. The older woman encouraged Smith, despite the fact that even at this early stage in her career her powerful voice was clearly heralding a major talent that would one day surpass Rainey. By 1920 Smith was headlining a touring show and was well on the way to becoming the finest singer of the blues the USA would ever hear. Despite changing fashions in music in the northern cities of New York and Chicago, Smith was a success wherever she performed and earned her billing as the Empress of the Blues. For all her successes elsewhere, however, her real empire was in the south, where she played theatres on the Theatre Owners' Booking Association circuit, packing in the crowds for every show. Although she was not among the first blues singers to make records, when she did so they sold in huge numbers, rescuing more than one recording company from the brink of bankruptcy. The records, on which her accompanists included Louis Armstrong and Joe Smith, consolidated her position as the leading blues singer of her generation, but here too, fashion dictated a shift in attitude.
By 1928 her recording career was effectively over, and personal problems, which stemmed from drink and poor judgement over her male companions, helped to begin a drift from centre stage. It was during this fallow period that she made her only film appearance, in St. Louis Blues (1929), with James P. Johnson and members of the recently disbanded Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. She continued to perform, however, still attracting a faithful, if diminished, following. In 1933 John Hammond Jnr. organized a record date, on which she was accompanied by, among others, Jack Teagarden and Coleman Hawkins, which proved to be her last. The following year she was in a highly successful touring show and in 1935 appeared at the Apollo Theatre in New York to great acclaim. In her private life she had a new companion, a showbiz-loving bootlegger named Richard Morgan, an uncle of Lionel Hampton, who brought her new stability. With the growing reawakening of interest in the earlier traditions of American music and another film planned, this should have been the moment for Smith's career to revive, but on 26 September 1937 she was fatally injured while being driven by Morgan to an engagement in Mississippi.
Smith's recordings range from uproarious vaudeville songs to slow blues; to the former she brought a reflection of her own frequently bawdy lifestyle, while the latter are invariably imbued with deeply felt emotions. All are delivered in a rich contralto matched by a majestic delivery. Every one of her recordings is worthy of attention, but especially important to an understanding of the blues and Smith's paramount position in its history are those made with Armstrong and Smith. Even in such stellar company, however, it is the singer who holds the attention. She was always in complete control, customarily refusing to work with a drummer and determinedly setting her own, usually slow, tempos. Indeed, on some recordings her entrance, after an opening chorus by her accompanists, noticeably slows the tempo. On her final record session she makes a gesture towards compromise by recording with musicians attuned to the imminent swing era, but she is still in charge. Her influence is impossible to measure; so many of her contemporaries drew from her that almost all subsequent singers in the blues field and in some areas of jazz have stylistic links with the 'Empress of the Blues'. Many years after her death she was still the subject of plays and books, several of which perpetuated the myth that her death was a result of racial prejudice, or used her to promulgate views not necessarily relevant to the singer's life. Fortunately, one of the books, Chris Albertson's Bessie, is an immaculately researched and well-written account of the life, times and music of one of the greatest figures in the history of American music.
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