|175 cm (5′ 9”)
| April 15,
|Sep 26, 1937 (age 43)
Does Bessie Smith Dead or Alive?
As per our current Database, Bessie Smith died on Sep 26, 1937 (age 43).
|175 cm (5′ 9”)
She worked as a street performer with her brother on the streets of Chattanooga. Ma Rainey mentored her and helped her develop her stage presence.
The 1900 census indicates that her family reported that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July 1892. The 1910 census gives her age as 16, and a birth date of April 15, 1894 which appears on subsequent documents and was observed as her birthday by the Smith family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but later interviews with Smith’s family and contemporaries contain no mention of them against her siblings.
In 1904, her oldest brother Clarence left home and joined 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 and arranged an audition for his sister with the troupe managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher. Bessie was hired as a dancer rather than a vocalist since the company already included popular singer Ma Rainey. Contemporary accounts indicate that, while Ma Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, she likely helped her develop a stage presence. Smith eventually moved on to performing in chorus lines, making the “81” Theater in Atlanta her home base. She also performed in shows on the black-owned Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuit and would become one of its major attractions.
Hoping to capitalize on this new market, Smith began her recording career in 1923. Bessie Smith was signed to Columbia Records in 1923 by Frank Walker, a talent agent who had seen her perform years earlier. Her first session for Columbia was on February 15, 1923; it was engineered by Dan Hornsby. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia’s regular A-series. When the company established a “race records” series, Smith’s “Cemetery Blues” (September 26, 1923) was the first issued. Both sides of her first record, “Downhearted Blues” backed with “Gulf Coast Blues”, were hits (an earlier recording of “Downhearted Blues” by its co-writer Alberta Hunter had previously been released by Paramount Records).
In 1923, Smith was living in Philadelphia when she met Jack Gee, a security guard, whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was being released. During the marriage, 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 custom-built railroad car. Their marriage was stormy with infidelity on both sides, including numerous female sex partners for Bessie. 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, Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.
Smith had a strong contralto voice, which recorded well from her first session, which was conducted when recordings were made acoustically. The advent of electrical recording made the power of her voice even more evident. Her first electrical recording was “Cake Walking Babies [From Home]”, recorded on May 5, 1925. Smith also benefited from the new technology of radio broadcasting, even on stations in the segregated South. For example, after giving a concert to a white-only audience at a theater in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 1923, she performed a late-night concert on station WMC, which was well received by the radio audience. Musicians and composers like Danny Barker and Thomas Dorsey compared her presence and delivery to a preacher because of her ability to enrapture and move her audience.
Smith’s career was cut short by the Great Depression, which nearly put the recording industry out of business, and the advent of sound in film, which spelled the end of vaudeville. She never stopped performing, however. The days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, but Smith continued touring and occasionally sang in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway musical, Pansy. The play was a flop; top critics said she was its only asset.
In November 1929, Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler, St. Louis Blues, based on composer W. C. Handy’s song of the same name. In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, Queens, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, the pianist James P. Johnson and a string section—a musical environment radically different from that of any of her recordings.
In 1933, John Henry Hammond, who also mentored Billie Holiday, asked Smith to record four sides for Okeh (which had been acquired by Columbia Records in 1925). He claimed to have found her in semi-obscurity, “working as a hostess in a speakeasy on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia.” Smith worked at Art’s Cafe on Ridge Avenue, but not as a hostess and not until the summer of 1936. In 1933, when she made the Okeh sides, she was still touring. Hammond was known for his selective memory and gratuitous embellishments.
Smith was paid a non-royalty fee of $37.50 for each selection on these Okeh sides, which were her last recordings. Made on November 24, 1933, they serve as a hint of the transformation she made in her performances as she shifted her blues artistry into something that fit the swing era. The relatively modern accompaniment is notable. The band included such swing era musicians as the trombonist Jack Teagarden, the trumpeter Frankie Newton, the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, the pianist Buck Washington, the guitarist Bobby Johnson, and the bassist Billy Taylor. Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in the adjoining studio, dropped by and is barely audible on one selection. Hammond was not entirely pleased with the results, preferring to have Smith revisit her old blues sound. “Take Me for a Buggy Ride” and “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)”, both written by Wesley Wilson, were among her most popular recordings.
On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car crash on U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving, and misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Skid 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 vehicle. 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.
Smith’s funeral was held in Philadelphia a little over a week later, on October 4, 1937. Initially, her body was laid out at Upshur’s funeral home. As word of her death spread through Philadelphia’s black community, her 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. Jack Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.
The 1948 short story “Blue Melody”, by J. D. Salinger, and the 1959 play The Death of Bessie Smith, by Edward Albee, are based on Smith’s life and death, but poetic license was taken by both authors; for instance, Albee’s play distorts the circumstances of her medical treatment, or lack of it, before her death, attributing it to racist medical practitioners. The circumstances related by both Salinger and Albee were widely circulated until being debunked at a later date by Smith’s biographer. HBO released a movie about Smith, Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, on May 16, 2015.
Smith’s grave remained unmarked until a tombstone was erected on August 7, 1970, paid for by the singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith. Dory Previn wrote a song about Joplin and the tombstone, “Stone for Bessie Smith”, for her album Mythical Kings and Iguanas. The Afro-American Hospital (now the Riverside Hotel) was the site of the dedication of the fourth historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Three recordings by Smith were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, an award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have “qualitative or historical significance.”
In 1984, Smith was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
The U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp honoring Smith in 1994.
“Downhearted Blues” was included in the list of Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. It is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock ‘n’ roll.
In 2002, Smith’s recording of “Downhearted Blues” was included in the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. The board annually selects recordings that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Currently, Bessie Smith is 127 years, 7 months and 13 days old. Bessie Smith will celebrate 128th birthday on a Friday 15th of April 2022.
Find out about Bessie Smith birthday activities in timeline view here.