Where almost all current popular music finds its distinct origin, with the Black and Bisexual Empress of the Blues.
"It's a long old road, but I know I'm gonna find the end." – Bessie Smith
The oldest artist we are featuring for Black History Month was born at the end of the 19th Century and made her first recordings during the Jazz Age, almost 100 years ago. Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, TN, and suffered the loss of her parents at a very early age. To survive, she and her brother would perform on street corners (busking) for whatever change they could muster from patrons. This honed her skills in a way that no amount of formal education ever could, and Smith was considered a great talent at a very early age. In 1912, while still a teenager, she was added to a traveling Blues act as a dancer, as Ma Rainey, a popular blues singer of the era, already had a lock on the sound.
She eventually became involved in a very early version of what would eventually be called the chitlin' circuit, playing shows in Black-owned theaters to Black patrons, as audiences had to be segregated at that time in the South. She caught the ear of a Columbia Records talent scout and became the biggest act on Columbia and on the circuit. In fact, she was the biggest-selling Blues artist of the 1920's and 1930's. It was at this time she married a security guard, Jack Gee, but she and he husband fought constantly, much of this due to Bessie Smith engaging in sexual relationships with women, many times openly. They would eventually separate but never divorce, with Smith engaging in a common-law marriage with and old friend, Richard Morgan.
Bessie Smith, 1936. Photo by Carl van Vecthen. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Great Depression almost sidelined her career permanently. John Hammond, the Columbia Records talent scout who would also years later discover Bob Dylan, found her living and performing in near obscurity, and re-signed her. Just as she started a second recording career as a Jazz swing artist, she died due to complications from a severe car accident in rural Mississippi. It is rumoured she might have lived if she could have been attended to by White ambulance drivers and taken to the closest hospital, which was also White's Only.
Smith's influence on current popular music cannot be underestimated: she not only was a major influence on other Blues singers, but all forms derived from it, including Jazz, Rock, R&B and Hip-Hop, as she was as unapologetic and open as any hardcore rapper about her life, hardships and sexuality at a time when discussing such things openly was considered low class and undignified.
Her grave remained unmarked for many years, much of this due to her husband, Gee, pocketing the money given to him to purchase one. She eventually got one in 1970. They money for it the grave marker came from two women. Half came from Juanita Green, who was once a cleaning lady for Smith. The other half came from Janis Joplin, who named Smith as her biggest influence.
1. Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl
2. Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle of Beer
3. Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out
4. Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair
5. Alexander's Ragtime Band
6. There'll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight
7. Do Your Duty
8. Cake Walkin' Babies From Home
9. Whoa Tillie Take Your Time
10. Mistreatin' Daddy
11. House Rent Blues
12. Woman's Trouble Blues
13. I Ain't Got Nobody
14. Hard Drivin' Papa
15. Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine
16. Foolish Man Blues
17. 'Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do
Love to you all.
Ben “Bear” Brown Jr., owner
Ace of Spades PDX
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