April 15, 1894– Bessie Smith was born into poverty in Tennessee, no one knows for certain exactly what year, but we’re going to say 1894. She was discovered singing on a street corner in Chattanooga as a young girl by the great Blues singer Ma Rainey. When she was 19-years-old, Smith married a man, but she had many love affairs with other women on the touring circuit, including the wife of her first musical director. Rainey was probably her first lover. She eventually separated, but never divorced, her husband when Smith’s affairs with other women became a problem in her marriage. Imagine that.
In 1923, Smith released her first recording, Down-Hearted Blues, selling nearly a million copies and making her a musical superstar. She gained the moniker “Empress Of The Blues”, popular with white and black music fans. Her immensely successful “race records”: Down Hearted Blues, St. Louis Blues, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out, plus Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer became all the rage.
By the end of the 1920s, Smith had become the highest paid black performer of all time. She toured on her own private train with a troupe of 40 musicians and stagehands. She performed and recorded with Louis Armstrong and she starred in the film St. Louis Blues (1929). During the Depression, popular musical tastes changed to Jazz and Swing and Smith’s style of blues, rooted in Vaudeville, had fell into disfavor with white audiences. Distraught and depressed,Smith found solace in booze and girls.
Her career was beginning to find traction again when, tragically, in 1937, she was killed in an automobile accident while on a concert tour. The circumstances surrounding Smith’s death remain murky even after 82 years. It seems likely that Smith bled to death while her ambulance drove around in search of a hospital that would take black patients, a situation that was all too common during the era of Jim Crow laws. Edward Albee based his terrific 1959 play, The Death Of Bessie Smith, on the end of her life.
Smith’s funeral was held at an African-American Chapter Elks Lodge. 10,000 mourners viewed her coffin. But, there was no money for a proper burial and she was laid to rest in an unmarked grave outside of Philadelphia.
Her husband’s family spent the money from her royalties. Thirty three years later, in 1970, Janis Joplin, who named Smith as a major influence on her own career, purchased a worthy headstone for Smith. A few months later, Joplin was also gone, taken by a drug overdose.
Smith was unquestionably the greatest of blues singer of all time and her influence continues today. She was an inspiration for the vocals of Billie Holiday andAretha Franklin. Frank Sinatra named her as a favorite singer. Her music has emotional intensity; her voice brings immediate personal pain, rough, crude and honest.
I know women that don’t like men. The way they do is a crying sin. It’s dirty but good, oh, yes, it’s dirty but good. There ain’t much difference, it’s just dirty but good.
“Dirty but Good”, the story of my life.
Two decades in the making, Queen Latifah produced and stars in Bessie, a bio-pic from HBO, which aired in Apri 2017. Queen Latifah is the right person for the role and HBO was the best studio for this project. Smith’s story is worth telling and getting it right. Leave it to a Queen. It’s available on HBO on Demand.