Bessie Smith
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Elizabeth Smith (abt. 1894 - 1937)

Elizabeth (Bessie) "Bessie" Smith
Born about in Chattanooga, Hamilton, Tennessee, United Statesmap
[spouse(s) unknown]
[children unknown]
Died at about age 43 in Clarksdale, Coahoma, Mississippi, United Statesmap
Profile last modified | Created 18 Feb 2009
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Contents

Biography

Notables Project
Bessie Smith is Notable.

Bessie Smith was an America blues singer known as "the Empress of the Blues," and was the most popular female blues singer in the 1920s and 1930s.

She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on the 15th of April 1894.

On September 26, 1937 she died in Clarksdale, Mississippi, from injuries sustained in a car accident. She was buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery, Sharon Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Research Notes

Keil-336 13:44, 8 December 2018 (UTC)
Content from Wikipedia article for consideration follows. All of this needs its own source, above and beyond the Wikipedia article, if included in the ultimate profile text.

There's a bit of controversy/confusion regarding Bessie's birth date. Per the 1900 US Census, she was born July 1892. Per the 1910 US Census, her age is 16 (b. ~1894). According to the Wikipedia article, the birth date of 15 Apr 1894 is used on subsequent documents and was the date observed by her family. It is this date that is currently used in her WikiTree and Wikipedia profiles. The birth date in the tombstone at her grave per FindAGrave has birth year 1895.

From the 1900 US Census:

  • Home in 1900: 100 Cross Street, Chattanooga Ward 4, Hamilton, Tennessee.
  • Head of household is Bessie's mother Laura Smith. Laura is widowed and has occupation of washer woman. Listed as having had 10 children, 7 of whom are living at the time of the census. Laura was born in Alabama as was Bessie's father.
  • Household members include the following, all with surname Smith:
Lousa age 59 (head)
Bud age 28 (son)
Andrew age 25 (son) (married)
Viola age 23 (daughter)
Tennie age 19 (daughter)
Lula age 16 (daughter)
Clarence age 14 (son)
Bessie age 7 (daughter)
Cora age 22 (daughter-in-law)
(It appears Andrew and Cora may be married.)

From the 1910 US Census:

  • Home in 1910: Chattanooga Ward 7, Hamilton, Tennessee.
  • Head of household is Viola, Bessie's sister. Viola is listed as divorced and with birthplace of Alabama.
  • Household members include the following, all with surname Smith:
Viola age 30 (divorced head of household)
Bessie age 12 (sister)
Laura age 12 (Viola's daughter)

Further Notes

  1. There's also a bit of controversy/confusion regarding Bessie's siblings per the Wikipedia article. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report 3 older half-siblings, but subsequent family interviews and interviews of contemporaries have no mention of these other siblings. [1]
  2. Bessie's mother: Laura Owens. Born in Alabama. Death by the time Bessie was 9 years old.
  3. Bessie's father: William Smith. Born in Alabama. Laborer and part-time Baptist preacher. 1870 Census indicates "minister of the gospel" in Moulton, Lawrence County, Alabama. Death soon enough after Bessie's birth that she has no memories of him. [2]
  4. By the time Bessie was 9 years old, her mother and a brother had also died (in addition to her father). Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings. [3]
  5. Another brother is Andrew, also musically inclined. He accompanied Bessie's singing and dancing on the guitar while they performed on the streets of Chattanooga.
  6. Oldest brother is Clarence who in 1904 joined a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. Clarence's spouse Maud outlived him. (FindAGrave biography implies Clarence may have gone by Charles.)
  7. Bessie married Jack Gee, a security guard she met while living in Philadelphia, on 07Jun1923. Bessie ended the relationship in 1929. Neither Bessie nor Jack filed for divorce.
  8. Bessie later entered a common-law marriage with Richard Morgan (Lionel Hampton's uncle) and was with him until her death.
  9. Bessie died after a car crash that took place 26 Sep 1937. Richard Morgan was driving with Bessie as the passenger. The write-up on Wikipedia makes it sound like the accident happened in the evening and Bessie died the next morning. So, there may be some unclarity as to whether Bessie died on the 26th or 27th of September.
  10. An estimated 10,000 mourners filed past Bessie's coffin 03Oct1937. Bessie's funeral was in Philadelphia 04 Oct 1937, attended by approximately 7,000.
  11. Burial is at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill.
  12. Bessie's grave was unmarked until a stone was erected 07 Aug 1970 and paid for by Janis Joplin and Juanita Green.

Sources

  1. Source listings from the 1870 and 1880 US Census yet to be provided.
  2. Sources needed regarding Bessie's father William Smith.
  3. (Source listed in Wikipedia) Albertson, Chris (2003). Bessie (rev. expanded ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09902-9.
  • Women on Stamps: Part 4 / Bessie Smith, Smithsonian National Postal Museum.
  • National Women's Hall of Fame, inducted 1984.
  • "United States Census, 1900," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MS8L-GKX : accessed 8 December 2018), Bessie Smith in household of Lousa Smith, Chattanooga city Ward 4, Hamilton, Tennessee, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 60, sheet 12A, family 270, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,241,574.
  • "United States Census, 1910," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MGXZ-M1P : accessed 8 December 2018), Bessie Smith in household of Viola Smith, Chattanooga Ward 7, Hamilton, Tennessee, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 65, sheet 2B, family 48, NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982), roll 1503; FHL microfilm 1,375,516.
  • African Americans in the Performing Arts, Revised Edition. Edited by Steven Otfinoski. New York: Facts on File, 2010. (AfrAmPA2 2). Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Gale Research Company; Detroit, Michigan; Accession Number: 1162353.
  • A to Z of American Women in the Performing Arts. By Liz Sonneborn. New York: Facts on File, 2002. (AZAmWPA). Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Gale Research Company; Detroit, Michigan; Accession Number: 4311040.
  • Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. Ninth edition. Edited by Laura Kuhn. New York: Schirmer Books, 2001. (BakBD 9). Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Gale Research Company; Detroit, Michigan; Accession Number: 4311047

See Also:

Summary of Wikipedia

She was the daughter of Laura and William Smith, a part-time Baptist preacher who died while his daughter was young. When Bessie was nine, her mother and brother also died, leading to her sister Viola taking care of her siblings. Bessie never had any education.
Because of her parents' death, she had an impoverished childhood, and to help out with the money. Bessie and Andrew, her brother, started street singing in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She sang and he played the guitar on street corners for a little money; their usual place was by the White Elephant Saloon in the center of the African-American community.
Her elder brother Clarence left home in 1904, joining a small troupe owned by Moses Stokes; Bessie would have gone with him, but she was too young.
Clarence returned with the troupe and arranged an audition for Bessie with the troupe managers; they hired her as a dancer because they already had the popular singer Ma Rainey in the troupe. She helped Bessie to develop a stage presence, and Smith moved on to performing in chorus lines with the "81 Theater" as her base.
She formed her own act in 1913 at the "81," and had established a reputation by 1920, especially in the South and the East Coast. A record by Mamie Smith called "Crazy Blues" had established a new market, and led to search for female blues singers.
Bessie capitalized on this market and began her recording career in 1923 when she signed for Columbia Records. Her first session was on 15 February 1923, which was engineered by Dan Hornsby; the first record issued was "Cemetery Blues," on 26 September 1923, and then "Downhearted Blues"/"Gulf Coast Blues."
Her popularity increased and she became a headliner on the Theater Booking Association circuit and became its top attraction in the 1920s. She became the highest-paid black entertainer of the time. She traveled in her own 72-foot long railroad car, and she was nicknamed "Queen of the Blues," but the press upgraded this to "Empress of the Blues." Her music celebrated independence, fearlessness and sexual freedom.
Thought by some to be too rough, she became the most successful diva because of this style even rougher than Mamie Smith.
She had a strong contralto voice which was even better at the advent of recording, which made her singing more evident. Her first record was "Cake Walking Babies," recorded 5 May 1925. She took advantage of radio broadcasting which had just started up and was well received by the listeners.
In all she made 160 recordings for the Columbia label, and played with the top musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P Johnson, Joe Smith and Charlie Green. And a number of her recordings, like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" with the Dorsey Brothers in 1927, became best selling records.
Bessie's career was cut short by the Depression, which almost put the industry out of business, and the start up of film, which ended Vaudeville, but despite this she kept on performing and touring, sometimes singing in clubs. She appeared in a Broadway musical in 1929 called Pansy; although it flopped, the critics said she was its only asset.
In November 1929 she made her one film appearance in a two-reeler, St Louis Blues, which was based on the song of the same name by W. C. Handy, and she sang it with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra and the Hall Johnson Choir.
In 1933, John Henry Hammond, who also advised Billie Holiday, recorded four tracks with Bessie for Okeh, which had been acquired by Columbia in 1925. (Allegedly at the time she had been working as a hostess in a speakeasy on Ridge Avenue in semi-obscurity -- which wasn't correct, although she did work at Art's Cafe, but not as a hostess.)
She was still touring when she cut the Okeh sides. She received $37.50 for each selection on what were her last recordings, and they shifted her genre from blues to swing.

Death

On 26th of September 1937 she was badly injured in a car crash on U.S, Route 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale. Her lover, Richard Morgan, who was driving, misjudged the speed of a slow moving truck and hit the vehicle's side at high speed. The truck's tailgate sheared off the wooden roof of her old Packard vehicle, and she took the full impact, though Morgan escaped without injuries.

She was taken to the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale where she died that morning. Her body was moved to O.V. Elks Lodge, where an estimated 10,000 mourners filed past her coffin on Sunday the 3rd of October. Her funeral was held in Philadelphia and attended by seven thousand people and she was buried at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill. Her grave remained unmarked until a tombstone was erected on 7 August 1970 by the singers Janis Joplin and Juanita Green.




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Bessie is mentioned in the BBC article "The forgotten story of America's first black superstars".
posted by Melanie Paul