This essay is one in a series celebrating women whose major contributions in recording occurred before the time frame of NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.
She was big and brown and built high off the ground — "a hell of a woman," men called her, but most women said she was "rough." And while there were other blues singers in the first half of the 20th century — some who shared her surname — none could be mistaken for Bessie Smith. Not Mamie Smith or Clara or Trixie or Ruby or Laura.
None of the others could sing with her combination of field holler and Jazz Age sophistication. None could throw her voice from the stage — without a microphone — and make a balcony seat feel like the front row. None made such an artistic impression on her contemporaries in jazz, or her disciples in rock 'n' roll. That's because she was the "Empress of the Blues" — and empress is, by definition, a solo gig.
What came out of Smith onstage grabbed people by the lapels and shook them up — not because she was new and different, but rather because she was so powerfully familiar. She sang about the kind of trouble that most people knew well, and her shouts and lamentations identified a depth of feeling that nearly everyone experiences, but would be hard-pressed to describe.
"She just upset you," says the New Orleans musician and jazz ranconteur Danny Barker in a landmark 1956 jazz history. Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It devotes an entire chapter to Smith as a musical influence — the only woman afforded such consideration. Barker saw her perform in the 1910s and '20s before he moved to New York. "If you have a church background," he writes, "like people who came from the South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people ... Bessie did the same thing on stage."
While other singers sidled up to a blues — insinuating, cajoling and even whispering to convey a point — Smith launched something like a St. Crispin's Day attack on all 12 bars (or 16, or eight, depending on the song). In her phrasing, embellishments and even her breaths, she was communicating the kind of outward urgency and inner stillness that often signals the telling of an absolute truth.
"There was a misery in what she did," said Alberta Hunter, who wrote the lyrics to Smith's first commercial release, "Downhearted Blues." "It was as though there was something she had to get out, something she just had to bring to the fore."
Smith's version of "Downhearted Blues" sold a reported 780,000 copies in 1923, a minor miracle for a song that had already hit nationwide for a variety of different artists. But her version, with its new line, "I got the world in a jug, the stopper in my hand," was definitive. And for many years, Smith did have the world in a jug.
She never traveled overseas or gave a command performance for European royalty, or even saw the western side of the Rocky Mountains, as many of her contemporaries did. But Smith's early success set in motion a recording career that forms the basis of even the most casual understanding of the blues: "Backwater Blues," "St. Louis Blues," "Careless Love Blues," "Young Woman's Blues" (which she wrote), "Baby Won't You Please Come Home," "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon" (which she also wrote), "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," "'T'aint Nobody's Biz-Ness If I Do" and "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," among others.
Within a reported 10 months of signing Smith, the Columbia label sold two million records. Over the next four years, her sales reached six million. But she sang a wider repertoire as a featured performer in vaudeville, in her traveling tent show, on theatrical tours, and, later, in jazz clubs. The blues made Smith the highest paid black entertainer of her era, but she was just as adept at singing show tunes and more popular Tin Pan Alley fare, which became the basis of many early jazz standards.
No one who was born into the kind of poverty that Smith lived through would easily fathom her success. At the turn of the last century, the only millions that people in the segregated South talked about described harvests, acres, or the number of black folks who sincerely wanted out.
Smith's childhood in 1890s Tennessee began with a series of setbacks that most people don't get over: Her parents were dead by the time she was 10, and she and her siblings were raised in Chattanooga by an aggrieved older sister. They nearly starved. For money, her sister took in laundry. Young Bessie sang on the street and at churches that sent for the child with the extraordinary voice.
By the age of nine, she had a following. By 16, she'd met blues great Ma Rainey and begun traveling with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a touring variety show that played to rural populations of the South and Midwest. By 24, Smith had lit out as a solo act — based in Atlanta and attaching herself to other traveling shows and entertainments. It was a risk for a single woman — even Ma Rainey had a husband who traveled with her. But Smith had the moxie of a female Jack Johnson — never too shy to beat the feathers out of someone, anyone.
She was as hot as a six-shooter on the black entertainment circuit in the rural South and along the East Coast, attracting a loyal following and the most sought-after jazz musicians: the piano players Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson and Fred Longshaw; trombonist Charlie Green, and cornet/trumpet player Joe Smith (no relation). A young Louis Armstrong recorded with her in 1925 and needed change for his first-ever $100 bill.
"I say, 'Look here Bessie, you got change for a hundred?'" Armstrong recounted on Voice of America in 1956. "And she say, 'Sure my man.' She raised up her dress standing and there was, like, [you know,] how a carpenter keeps his nails? Man, so much money [in the apron under her skirt] — that killed me."
There's no overestimating the influence Smith and Armstrong had on American musicians, particularly in their collaborations and interpretations of the blues. Smith's blues — the way she streamlined the notes to her songs, making familiar melodies sound idiosyncratic, personal and authentic — encouraged jazz musicians to approach their instruments vocally. "The melody meant nothing to her," clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow famously recalled in his memoir Really the Blues. "She made up her own melody to fit the poetry of her story, phrasing all around the original tune if it wasn't just right." Jazz solos from the mid-1920s onward evolved into extensions of the personalities and experiences of the musicians who played them. Whatever a song's lyrics, the solos became stories within the story.
The blues come "from the man farthest down," said W.C. Handy, who wrote "St. Louis Blues" and so many others. "From nothingness, from want, from desire." So what does it mean that Smith sings "I hate to see that evening sun go down" better than anybody else? Or, "Gee it's hard to love someone when someone don't love you?" By Handy's account, Smith's blues would seem the bluest of all. But then, what does it mean that Smith sings just as convincingly about the joys of sex? And drinking? And throwing away an old lover for a strapping young thing? By Handy's account, Smith's blues may not be blue enough.
The short answer is that the blues encompass more of the human experience than most people are prepared to believe. And Smith's greatness, like that of other musicians of her caliber, appears rooted in her ability to channel her life story seamlessly into her life's work. Yes, she was the best of the "classic blues" queens the record industry promoted in the 1920s — bejeweled and resplendent in sequins, gowns, feathers and furs. But look — no airs! Standing on a Broadway stage or seated on a garbage can in an alley singing, she was, without apology, herself.
"She had this trouble in her, this thing that wouldn't let her rest sometimes, a meanness that came and took her over," writes clarinetist Sidney Bechet in his memoir, Treat it Gentle. Bechet and Smith were lovers before her success at Columbia and his permanent move to Europe. In the book, he recounts the affair — the fights and the drinking and the moods and the hellfire singing. "But what she had was alive," he writes. "If you understand it, it's there and if you don't understand it, it's not for you. Bessie, she was great."
"Is you in school?" Smith once reportedly asked a little girl at a Philadelphia talent show.
"Yes ma'am," the little girl said.
"Well, you better stay there, 'cause you can't carry a note."
Bessie — Chris Albertson's celebrated biography — recounts that conversation and plenty of other stories from people who knew or did business with Smith. Taken singularly, they're great anecdotes, the kind people tell about folk heroes who are lovably fictional or safely dead. But the details add up. In Smith's case, they amount to a woman whose life makes a liar out of every subsequent performer claiming to have had an original experience in the music business.
She was the first bisexual, alcoholic, horsewhipped-by-segregationists, beat-out-of-songwriting-royalties, lemonade-making, dark-skinned singing-sensation whose husband cheated on her with a light-skinned "Becky with the good hair." But unlike Beyoncé's rival in song, this "Becky" was Gertrude Saunders — a singer whose hair Smith tried pulling out by the follicles.
Other familiar themes emerge from her career: A stingy record label? Definitely. Smith sold millions, but Columbia paid her no more than $200 per song released and no artist royalties. She earned her living performing live. Shaming-but-greedy relatives? You bet. Smith moved her aggrieved sister and other family to live near her in Philadelphia and supported them financially when they squandered her money. A murderous fan? Check. Smith was stabbed in the stomach while on a triumphant return to Chattanooga. Arrests? Plenty. Disorderly conduct and illegal drinking often landed her in jail. Twerking? Possibly. As far back as the 1920s, Smith's performances featured plus-sized women bent over and shaking enthusiastically, with their tushes facing the audience. Artistic reinvention? Of course. Interest in the blues was in decline before the Great Depression. That's when Smith began writing and singing other kinds of songs that deepened her appeal to Southerners and rekindled interest among the Northern social elite.
Her savvy pioneered a way to remain relevant in music, which helped younger performers find their own success. It seems more than coincidence that Smith finished her last-ever recordings on a Friday in November 1933 and, on the following Monday, a then-unknown Billie Holiday entered the same New York studio to make her first recordings. Holiday counted Smith as an important musical inspiration.
So did Mahalia Jackson. As a little girl, she listened to Smith on the radio while washing floors in New Orleans and later applied her singing style to gospel music.
Smith was famous for making people laugh and cry in the same song, and Pearl Bailey's comedic timing is reminiscent of her vaudevillian flair. Just listen to the running commentary in Bailey's song "Tired" ("Well-I-guess-by-now-you-all-have-the-general-idea: I. Am. Tired."). Dinah Washington, meanwhile, evoked Smith's sexual confidence and pathos on nearly every song in her repertoire. In 1958, she released Dinah Sings Bessie Smith. But listen to her 1954 live recording of "Lover Man." Golly! Washington's voice rings out like a trumpet, just as Smith's did, outshining jazz greats Max Roach and Clifford Brown.
Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin were the shouters of the late 1960s whose artistic ties to Smith were obvious to anyone paying attention. Like Smith, those women could "work" a song into a marathon event in concert, leaving audiences exhilarated and exhausted.
And yet, the differences between them were obvious, as well. For Smith and her modern-day successors, the momentum of history moved in opposite directions. In the 1960s, Franklin, Joplin and even a young Nina Simone lived in a world in which social change that would benefit black people and women was nearer to being realized.
Smith, however, lived at a time when social change meant the passage of racial segregation laws nationwide. Lynchings of black men and women could number in the hundreds per year.
Unlike the video divas of today, Smith appeared in only one film. In St. Louis Blues (1929), she plays a sucker for a gambler and a cheat. Her character, also called "Bessie," beats up the girlfriend, but it's no use. She then sings the Handy song with a force and finesse that would test any other belter:
St. Louis woman wears her diamond ring
Pulls my man around by her apron string
Wasn't for powder and the store-bought hair
The man I love wouldn't go nowhere, nowhere!
While the real-life Bessie gave as much trouble as she got in romance (she was rarely, if ever, faithful to a paramour), she summons more than one universal truth in her rendition of lost love. To be sure — there's always someone prettier out there, or sexier, or with better jewelry. But Smith's singing is also a reminder that loss and grief lend meaning to human existence. Even during her toughest times — the worst of her drinking binges, the deepest days of the Depression — her message resonated with critics and fans When she died from injuries in a car accident in 1937, having not recorded a song in years, more than 5,000 people attended her funeral.
So, after the initial shock of knowing that Smith's grave in Pennsylvania had no headstone for more than 30 years, it becomes clear to all who care that the indignities she suffered extended well beyond the truck driver who left her for dead on that Mississippi stretch of Highway 61. There was money for a headstone apparently, but her estranged husband spent it on something or someone else. And yet, Smith had a ready response to the often ridiculous circumstances of her life, which aptly reflects the circumstances of her death: "I never heard of such s***!" Seventy years later, the line is still vaudeville-tragic and vaudeville-funny.
That Janis Joplin helped buy Smith's headstone in 1971 — two weeks before her own untimely death — is well-known. But the other person who helped buy the stone was Juanita Green: the little girl who Smith once told to give up singing and stay in school. Green became a nurse and a businesswoman in Pennsylvania, which suggests that the breadth of Smith's influence should never be confined solely to music. That's the thing about empresses. Their subjects are everywhere.