Bessie Smith was born around 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Not much detail is known about her early years, except of course that as urban blacks living in unsympathetic times, the lot of her family would have been extreme poverty. The gift of a good voice is fortunately both readily perceptible and simple to turn to advantage, and Bessie was singing in the streets of Chattanooga for small change when she was only ten years old. She soon joined a travelling show in which the main singer was the already famous 'Ma' Rainey, older than Bessie, from whom she learned much.
There followed a professional career of no less than eleven years playing in tent shows and theatres, which pursued a slow but inevitably upward path, before she made her first issued records in 1923. These gave her instant success that eclipsed all she had achieved thus far, but it is impossible to underestimate the consequences not only of her childhood origins but also her early entry into the entertainment profession as it was for poor blacks in those times. The life was very rough: it bordered sometimes on the underworld; travel and accommodation were sordid; artists were victims of the entrepreneurs, producers and bookers - both white and black - who often tricked them out of their pay and sometimes even prevented them from furthering their careers in order not to lose a 'meal ticket' to a bigger hustler. Yet bad as these things were, a little real money from time to time bought a style of life that had seemed unattainable when one had lived in the hut 'down home'. All this was a big inducement to 'live for today, and let tomorrow go hang.' It characterised many lives, including Bessie Smith's.
The reasons for the gradual fall in Bessie Smith's popularity were varied, and largely unconnected with her singing artistry. This remained undiminished, as is plain to hear: Do Your Duty, Gimme a Pigfoot, and I'm Down in the Dumps are all from her last recording session in November 1933. But, significantly, they were released on the OKeh label (at budget-price) while all the preceding 150-odd sides had been on topprice Columbia: the record industry was in disarray as a consequence of the Depression and the ever-increasing popularity of radio; Blue Spirit Blues had sold only 3,000 copies while back in 1923 her first smash hit attained 750,000. Her last Columbia issues had a pressing figure of only 700! The band accompaniment to the 1933 sides indicates a stylistic change an edginess pointing to new musical styles that would require Bessie to make major concessions in her repertoire. Reviews of engagements she fulfilled during the last four years of her life indicate that she was successful in doing this, but she was killed in a car crash during a tour in 1937. She thus never had the opportunity - which would certainly have come to her in the 1940s - to receive the true world-wide recognition as a Jazz singer she merited and which the passage of time merely reaffirms, that Bessie Smith was, in truth, the Empress Of The Blues.
© Norman Field 1987