This week on Riverwalk Jazz, it’s the story of Bessie Smith, dubbed Empress of the Blues." Contemporary New Orleans vocalist Topsy Chapman joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band to re-interpret classics of early jazz and blues first recorded by Bessie in the 1920s.
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“Bessie was a queen,” said Ruby Walker, her niece by marriage. “I mean the people looked up to her and worshiped her like she was a queen. …She was that kind of woman, a strong, beautiful woman with a personality as big as a house.”
According to Smith biographer Chris Albertson, Smith arrived at her blues style independently. “I am almost certain that Ma Rainey got Bessie on the blues track, but regarding her style, while she may have picked up a little here and there, she certainly had her own approach to it. There wasn’t much outside influence.”
To say she had humble beginnings puts it mildly. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894, Bessie Smith was orphaned at an early age and cared for by siblings. In childhood, she danced on street corners for coins to help feed her family. Her brother Clarence helped get her a job in the chorus line of a traveling minstrel show, the Moss Stokes Company, where she met her mentor, Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey.
Bessies's first hit recording in 1923, “Down Hearted Blues,” sold over 800,000 copies. She went on to record many classic blues, some her own compositions, with the most notable jazz artists of the 1920s, among them Clarence Williams, James P. Johnson, Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and Louis Armstrong, with whom she recorded the timeless “St. Louis Blues.”
By the early 1930s, the Depression had decimated the recording business and Bessie Smith’s brand of classic blues was out of style, but Smith was beginning to adjust her repertoire to the sophistication of the Swing Era. Chris Albertson writes,
“Lionel Hampton was doing a series of small group recordings for RCA Victor at the time, and he told me he had planned to use her on some of them. By this time, she had changed her appearance. She stopped wearing wigs and swept her hair back, wore beautiful, plain evening gowns, and sang songs like “Tea for Two” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” During this time she performed at Connie’s Inn for twelve weeks, and many people heard her and saw that she had transformed herself. So, there is no question that, had she lived, she would have been a part of the Swing Era.”
Bessie Smith’s life was cut short in September 1937. Early one Sunday morning, after a late night performance, Bessie headed out of Memphis on the road to Clarksdale in her old Packard. Her friend Richard Morgan was at the wheel. The road was dark, and they hit a truck. Bessie didn’t survive.