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The most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s, Smith is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era, and along with Louis Armstrong, a major influence on subsequent jazz vocalists.
She was the daughter of Laura (Owens) Smith 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) who died before his daughter could remember him. By the time she was nine, she had lost her mother as well, and her older sister Viola was left in charge of caring for her sisters and brothers.
As a way of earning money for their impoverished household, Smith and her brother Andrew began performing on the streets of Chattanooga as a duo, she singing and dancing, he accompanying on guitar; their preferred 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 and arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give her an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company also included Ma Rainey.
By the early 1920s, Smith had starred with Sidney Bechet in How Come, a musical that made its way to Broadway, and spent several years working out of Atlanta, Georgia's 81 Theater, performing in black theaters along the East Coast. Following a run-in with the producer of How Come, she was replaced by Alberta Hunter and returned to Philadelphia, where she had taken up residence. There, she met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first recordings were being released by Columbia Records. The marriage was a stormy one, with infidelity on both sides. During the marriage, Smith became the biggest headliner on the black Theater Owners Booking Association ( T.O.B.A.) circuit, running a show that sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers and made her the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Gee was impressed by the money, but never adjusted to show business life, and especially not Smith's bisexuality. In 1929, when Smith learned of Gee's affair with another performer, Gertrude Saunders, she ended the marriage, but never sought a legal 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.
In 1920, sales figures for "Crazy Blues," an Okeh recording by singer Mamie Smith (no relation) pointed to a new market. The recording industry had never aimed its product at blacks, but now the door had been opened and the search for female blues singers was on. Smith was signed by Columbia Records in 1923 when the label decided to establish a "race records" series.
She scored a big hit with her first release, a coupling of "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Downhearted Blues," which its composer, Alberta Hunter had already turned into a hit on the Paramount label. Smith became a headliner on the black T.O.B.A. circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter months and doing tent tours the rest of the year (eventually traveling in her own railroad car), Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Columbia nicknamed her "Queen of the Blues", but a PR-minded press soon upgraded her title to "Empress".
She made some 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the
finest musicians of the day, most notably Louis Armstrong, James P.
Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, and Fletcher Henderson.
These performances, for which Hammond paid her a non-royalty fee of $37.50 each, were recorded on November 24, 1933. They constitute Smith's final recordings and are of particular interest because Smith was in the process of translating her blues artistry into something more apropos to the Swing Era.
The accompanying band included such Swing Era musicians as trombonist
Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry,
pianist Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, and bassist Billy
Taylor. Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in
the adjoining studio, dropped by for an almost inaudible guest visit.
Hammond was not pleased with the result, preferring to have Smith back
in her old blues groove, but "Take Me For A Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a
Pigfoot" (in which Goodman is part of the ensemble) remain among her
most popular recordings.
Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia on October 4, 1937. It was attended by about seven thousand people, according to contemporary newspaper reports. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearby Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania. Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone, once or twice even pocketing money raised for that purpose. The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970, when a new tombstone was placed, paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who, as a child, had done housework for Smith.
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.
Grammy Hall of Fame