Bessie Smith – ‘Empress of the Blues’

This is not just a tale of a great singer, but of a tragic end and her links to a modern day blues icon Janis Joplin.

The name ‘Empress of the Blues’ given to the late great Bessie (Elisabeth) Smith was no exaggeration. Born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she went on to be the highest paid female Black artist of the 1920’s and 30’s.

Born on April 15th 1894, Bessie began performing at the age of 8 developing her skills, about 1913 (aged 19) she toured in a show with Ma Rainey (see also the review of the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), one of the first of the great blues singers, from whom she received some training and was a mentor.

This gave her the confidence to go it alone, by 1920 she made her home in Philadelphia, and it was there that she was first heard by Clarence Williams, a representative of Columbia Records.

Her first recordings in 1923 included the classic Down Hearted Blues, which became an enormous success, selling more than two million copies. Over her life she made 160 recordings in all, in many of which she was accompanied by some of the great jazz musicians of the time, including some notable songs Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do, Careless Love Blues, Empty Bed Blues, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, and Gimme a Pigfoot.

Her tragic death on September 26th 1937 after a road accident on Highway (Route) 61 in Mississippi has often been misreported. The situation was made worse by a 2nd oncoming car crashing into Dr Hugh Smiths car, who at the time was tending to Bessie Smith, the young couple in this car also received life threatening injuries and another ambulance had to be called.

It was rumoured that she was refused hospital admission because she was Black (Note: there were designated Black and White hospitals in Mississippi), this is not factual. It was in fact a story spread by John Hammond of CBS Records and his version was turned into a one act play, The Death Of Bessie Smith written by Edward Albee also factually incorrect.

Bessie Smith was taken to the G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness, the hospital is now dedicated as the fourth historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.

Her unmarked grave was the responsibility of Smith’s estranged husband Jack Gee, he simply pocketed the money and donations blocking any attempt to erect a headstone.

This changed in 1970, Janis Joplin bought a headstone with Juanita Green for the grave of her greatest influence Bessie Smith at the Mont Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia, it is engraved ‘The Greatest Blues Singer In The World Will Never Stop Singing’. 

Janis Joplin identified so strongly with Bessie Smith that she sometimes told friends that she felt she was Bessie Smith reincarnated. Her rasping, guttural voice and her tendency to shout are all throwbacks to Bessie. The unabashed sexuality of Joplin’s singing, too, can be credited to Bessie Smith’s influence. The event is commemorated in a song written by Dory Previn ‘Stone For Bessie Smith’.

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