Personalities | Bessie Smith | Twenties | Jazz & Blues

Bessie Smith was one of the greatest vocalists of the twentieth century; her emotional delivery and exquisite phrasing has been an influence on instrumentalists as well as innumerable singers, both male and female.

Many of her records, including ‘Gimmie a Pigfoot’, ‘Woman’s Trouble Blues’, ‘St. Louis Blues’ and the song that became an anthem of the Great Depression, ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out’, are still considered classics in both jazz and blues circles. Bessie worked for years in vaudeville and tent shows, and her versions of popular songs such as ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, as well as her potential as a swing artist evident in the sides from her final recording session, show that she was a more versatile performer than she is often given credit for.

Life On The Road

Born into crushing poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee on 15 April 1894, Bessie Smith sang on street corners for tips as a girl, and in her teens she danced in a minstrel show; also performing in the show was Ma Rainey, who recognized Bessie’s potential and encouraged her to sing the blues. While honing her craft and expanding her territory, Bessie worked extensively in travelling shows and relocated to several different cities. By the early 1920s she was starring in her own revue, touring the Theater Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA) circuit along the Eastern Seaboard and through the South. In 1922 she met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a night watchman; they would marry the following year, although the union would be far from a happy one.

Street Fighting Woman

Following a failed audition with Okeh records, at which it was reportedly declared that Bessie’s voice sounded ‘too rough’, pianist Clarence Williams accompanied her to a recording session at Columbia Records in New York on 15 February 1923. When Gee discovered that Williams was siphoning off the majority of the money made from Bessie’s initial recordings, he severed the business arrangement, and Bessie signed a contract with Frank Walker at Columbia. Although she still recorded Williams’ compositions, she now relied on Fletcher Henderson for piano accompaniment.

Her second session with Columbia resulted in ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’, a street-savvy declaration of defiance that became one of her theme songs, and which remains a classic of the genre. On the strength of that record and her subsequent releases, Smith garnered national fame and toured widely, not just in the South but in northern cities where African-American migrants were pouring in, seeking jobs and better living conditions than they had been able to find back home. It was for these audiences that Bessie Smith crafted her music and her persona as a tough-talking, urbane woman of power who nonetheless retained memories of her southern roots.

The lyrics of the songs Smith recorded dealt uncompromisingly with the harsh realities of African-American life, although their overall themes – love, loss, betrayal, defiance and perseverance in the face of hard times – were universal. Even at her most...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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