Sometimes referred to as The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and, along with Louis Armstrong, a major influence on subsequent jazz vocalists.
The 1900 census indicates that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July 1892. However, the 1910 census recorded her birthday as April 15, 1894, a date that appears on all subsequent documents and was observed by the entire Smith family. Census data also contributes to controversy about the size of her family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, while later interviews with Smith's family and contemporaries did not include these individuals among her siblings.
Bessie Smith was the daughter of Laura (née Owens) and William Smith. William Smith was a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a "minister of the gospel", in Moulton, Lawrence, Alabama.) He died before his daughter could remember him. By the time she was nine, she had lost her mother and a brother as well. Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings.
To earn money for their impoverished household, Bessie Smith and her brother Andrew began busking on the streets of Chattanooga as a duo: she singing and dancing, he accompanying her on guitar. Their favorite location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of the city's African-American community.
In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, covertly left home by joining a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud. "That's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child."
In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe. He arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give Smith an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company also included the then unknown singer, Ma Rainey. Smith eventually moved on to performing in various chorus lines, making the "81" Theater in Atlanta her home base. There were times when she worked in shows on the black-owned T.O.B.A Theater Owners Booking Association circuit. She would rise to become its biggest star after signing with Columbia Records.
By 1923, when she began her recording career, Smith had taken up residence in Philadelphia. There she met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was released. During the marriage—a stormy one, with infidelity on both sides—Smith became the highest paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own railroad car. Gee was impressed by the money, but never adjusted to show business life, or to Smith's bisexuality. In 1929, when she learned of his affair with another singer, Gertrude Saunders, Bessie Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.
Smith eventually found a common-law husband in an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton's uncle and the antithesis of her husband. She stayed with him until her death.
On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving and, probably mesmerized by the long stretch of straight road, misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Tire marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith's old Packard. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.
The first people on the scene were a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation), and his fishing partner Henry Broughton. In the early 1970s, Dr. Smith gave a detailed account of his experience to Bessie's biographer Chris Albertson. This is the most reliable eyewitness testimony about the events surrounding Bessie Smith's death.
After stopping at the accident scene, Dr. Smith examined Bessie Smith, who was lying in the middle of the road with obviously severe injuries. He estimated she had lost about a half-pint of blood, and immediately noted a major traumatic injury to her right arm; it had been almost completely severed at the elbow. But Dr. Smith was emphatic that this arm injury alone did not cause her death. Although the light was poor, he observed only minor head injuries. He attributed her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a "sideswipe" collision.
Broughton and Dr. Smith moved the singer to the shoulder of the road. Dr. Smith dressed her arm injury with a clean handkerchief and asked Broughton to go to a house about 500 feet off the road to call an ambulance.
By the time Broughton returned approximately 25 minutes later, Bessie Smith was in shock. Time passed with no sign of the ambulance, so Dr. Smith suggested that they take her into Clarksdale in his car. He and Broughton had almost finished clearing the back seat when they heard the sound of a car approaching at high speed. Dr. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the oncoming car failed to stop and plowed into the doctor's car at full speed. It sent his car careening into Bessie Smith's overturned Packard, completely wrecking it. The oncoming car ricocheted off Dr. Smith's car into the ditch on the right, barely missing Broughton and Bessie Smith.
The young couple in the new car did not have life-threatening injuries. Two ambulances arrived on the scene from Clarksdale; one from the black hospital, summoned by Mr. Broughton, the other from the white hospital, acting on a report from the truck driver, who had not seen the accident victims.
Bessie Smith was taken to Clarksdale's Afro-American Hospital where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After Smith's death, an often repeated but now discredited story emerged about the circumstances; namely, that she had died as a result of having been refused admission to a "whites only" hospital in Clarksdale. Jazz writer/producer John Hammond gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine. The circumstances of Smith's death and the rumor promoted by Hammond formed the basis for Edward Albee's 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith.
"The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital, you can forget that." Dr. Smith told Albertson. "Down in the Deep South cotton country, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks."
Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia on Monday, October 4, 1937. Her body was originally laid out at Upshur's funeral home. As word of her death spread through Philadelphia's black community, the body had to be moved to the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday, October 3. Contemporary newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearby Sharon Hill. Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.
The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970, when a tombstone—paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith—was erected.
Dory Previn wrote a song of Janis Joplin and the tombstone called Stone for Bessie Smith on her album Mythical Kings and Iguanas.
The Afro-American Hospital, now the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, was the site of the dedication of the fourth historic marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Burial: Mount Lawn Cemetery, Sharon Hill, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, USA, Plot: Section C Lot 26 Grave 3
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Y. Davis
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (January 26, 1999)
Amazon: Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday
The author of "Women, Race and Class" suggests that "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday represent a black working-class, feminist ideology and historical consciousness. Davis' illuminating analysis of the songs performed by these artists provides readers with a compelling and transformative understanding of their musical and social contributions and of their relation to both the African-American community and American culture. of photos.
The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom by Barbara Smith
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Rutgers University Press (August 1, 2000)
Amazon: The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom
"The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom provides a universal message about struggle, resistance, and freedom, grounded within a black Lesbian feminist critique of America's culture and politics. The cogently written essays represent a cross-section of Smith's work over the past twenty years and the first book dedicated exclusively to her own writing. Focusing on race, feminism, and the politics of sexuality, Smith provides an alternative lens to view the world by making connections between systems of oppression and offering suggestions for social change."--The Washington Blade "Smith's book is an excellent example of powerful, introspective writing that challenges readers to reexamine their stance on complex issues concerning race and gender."--The Bloomsbury Review "Stretches of sublime prose translate [Smith's] crystalline intellect to the page, exciting both mind and senses."--Publishers Weekly As one of the first writers in the United States to claim black feminism for black women in the early seventies, Barbara Smith has done groundbreaking work in defining a black women's literary tradition; in examining the sexual politics of the lives of black and other women of color; in representing the lives of black lesbians and gay men; and in making connections between race, sexuality, and gender. Smith's essay "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism" is often cited as a major catalyst in opening the field of black women's literature. This essay also represented the first serious discussion of black lesbian writing. Essays about racism in the women's movement, black and Jewish relations, and homophobia in the black community have ignited dialogue about topics that few other writers address. The collection also brings together topical political commentaries that examine the 1968 Chicago convention demonstrations; attacks on the NEA; the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas Senate hearings; and police brutality against Rodney King and Abner Louima. Barbara Smith is cofounder and publisher of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. She has edited three major collections about black women, including Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, and is coeditor with Wilma Mankiller, Gwendolyn Mink, Marysa Navarro, and Gloria Steinem of The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History.