Jazzitalia - Bessie
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by Brunella Marinelli

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"You gotta pay the dues, if you wanna sing the Blues"

Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, probably on 15 April 1894. Her family was numerous and poor. She lost her father when she was an infant and by the time she was nine, her mother also passed away. Her oldest sister, Viola, had to raise the rest of the family. At that time, in the South, there were no good jobs for the poor black community. Many of them resigned themselves to become labourers in the fields, others were tempted by the world of show business. Chattanooga, located more than 100 miles from Nashville, by 1900 had a population of 30,000 and almost 50 per cent was black.

Bessie started as a street musician when she was nine. She sang and did a few steps, while her brother Andrew accompanied her on the guitar. They performed in their hometown, in the street where the black community animated nightlife. Sometimes she remained in her suburb in front of the White Elephant Saloon and she sang to collect some coins. Everything was useful to feed herself and the family. Her brother Clarence, who had artistic ambitions, arranged an audition in 1910, when the Moses Stokes Company came to Chattanooga; he was hired as a comedian and master of ceremonies. The following year also Bessie auditioned for the same company, and was taken as a dancer. The company featured Will and Gertrude Rainey: they were "Ma and Pa Rainey".

The circulating story at that time was that they had literally kidnapped the young Bessie and forced her to perform with them in a long tour. On that occasion she had learnt the art of the blues. Many years later, Bessie and ma Rainey laughed a lot about this invented story.

In 1913, once left the Moses Stokes Company, Bessie frequently performed on the stage of the 81 Theatre in Atlanta, which in the future would become a regular tour.

Bessie entered the TOBA circuit, a sort of association for theatre owners and organizers, who worked for travelling minstrel and blues companies. TOBA, which stood for Theatre Owners' Booking Association, was often referred to by black performers as "Tough On Black Artists", because TOBA paid less and general had worse touring arrangements than the white vaudeville counterpart.

The most famous minstrel and blues companies travelled South, between the city and the countryside, and they spread the blues among people. They arrived in the right places just at the right moment, when people had more economic possibilities and wanted to have fun. Blues companies followed the tobacco cultivation in spring and the cotton in autumn. Some reached the coal mines in the Sea's Islands, off the state of Georgia.

Men and women travelled hours to see the great blues singers of the moment, to feel the thrill of the blues. They got on overcrowded trains, packed like sardines and came from every part of the South: river settlements, corn fields, sawmills. Then they gathered in huge tents, put up for the shows. But blacks and whites were separated because of segregation.

he atmosphere was exciting, the audience was totally involved and the classic blues singers dealt with very hot themes in their songs. Very often the texts mirrored real life situations. When the blues were about dishonest and cruel men who mistreated their wives or abandoned their families, the women in the audience applauded very noisily and shouted.

he blues singers were sort of preachers for their fans. They knew their community very well; they embodied its values, emotions, problems and behaviours. What made them feel so close to their people, was that these artists, even the most successful ones, never showed their superiority, rather they shared their community problems. The themes of the blues were several. There were some which told about the "boll weevil ", the terrible cotton parasite that had devastated harvests and destroyed many farmers in the South.

There were also erotic blues, with clear sex allusions or ambiguous words. One of Ma Rainey's funniest numbers was a vulgar version of the "shimmy" and she liked to tease her audience with a repertoire full of metaphors and allusions to male anatomy.

Another recurrent theme was the solitary drunk, when the protagonist felt a deep nostalgia for his hometown. It was the common theme of solitude in huge towns.

The spectacular elements had also a key role in the show. A famous number performed by Ma Rainey started with the spotlight on a big box which had the shape of an old phonograph. The singer was hidden inside. A chorine arrived and mimed the action to play a record and the orchestra started to play. Ma Rainey sang the first notes, then opened the door of the "phonograph" and came out on the stage, sparkling under her about twenty pounds golden jewels. Also Bessie dressed up for her shows. It was her powerful voice that hypnotized the audience, but also her mises contributed to the general effect. They were original, but not very elaborate. She often wore long pearl necklaces, a Spanish shawl and sometimes ostrich features.

One of her favourite hats had the shape of an abat-jour. It was similar to a baseball helmet, trimmed with sequins and small beads. Two fringed wings extended on the left and right side of the hat. This funny lampstyle hat had been created by a stylist whose name was Palamida.

Another classical dress was the typical mammy-of-the-South-costume. It consisted of a handkerchief knotted on the forehead, a bright colour cotton dress, often dot patterned, and an apron.. A pillow on the back completed the mise.

In the Twenties the blues was still a form of rural poetry, concentrated in the South and played by generally unknown artists. Bessie with her first recording sessions at Columbia in 1923, soon became a hallmark for this kind of music and its fans. Success arrived immediately, as a sort of "gold blues rush". The song which sold 780,000 copies in 7 months (astonishing at that time) was "Down Hearted Blues". It was not a new piece, in fact it had been a hit by Alberta Hunter,a very popular singer those days.

Bessie got married twice. Her first husband, Earl Love, came to a rich family of the Mississippi. We do not know much about him, but he was probably a casualty of the First World War. Her second husband, Jack Gee, had a more important role in Bessie's life, unfortunately in a negative way.

On their very first date, Bessie and Jack happened upon a street robbery. Jack, probably showing off in front of her new girlfriend, chased the robber down in the street and suffered a very serious bullet wound, which led him to hospital. She fell in love with him during her daily visits to Jack, in bed for a few weeks. Bessie moved in with Jack soon after the release. After a short period of cohabitation, they got married. A very simple celebration took place on 7 June 1922. Their marriage lasted six years, during which they frequently quarrelled. Jack was suspicious and jealous about her wife ‘s easy behaviour She had started to drink heavily and during her tours, she often betrayed him both with men and women.

Even if she did not know music, she collaborated with her pianists and often wrote the lyrics of her songs. The texts were not particularly original, but it was common practice to compose songs using a "cut and paste process".

Bessie's great success and accordingly her improved economic situation, led her to take care of her sisters that moved to Philadelphia. She decided to buy a restaurant to them, hoping they could live on this new activity.

In 1925 she decided to buy a railroad car to travel comfortably during her long tours. Finding an accommodation for black artists was not that easy and with their own means of transport, they would avoid all the difficulties in searching for a place to stay together. The railroad car was beautiful to see. Bright yellow with green writings which announced that "The Empress is in Town". Seventy-eight feet long, the car was large enough to transport the entire show. Each of its seven state rooms slept four people in comfort, while a lower level served as a place which would contain up to thirty-five people. The kitchen and the bathroom featured hot and cold running water and the kitchen was large enough to feed a troupe of forty.

It was Bessie herself and her niece Ruby, who made personally the meals. Even the musicians were drafted to peel potatoes. The typical meals featured some southern specialities and the portions were generous. A band marched through town announcing the show, playing such lively tunes as "St Louis Blues", or "There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight".  Business was fine, but her husband's waste of money, the habit of drinking a storm and her sisters' maintenance, made her spend more than she earned. It happened sometimes that she made expensive presents to Jack, just to reconcile again with her husband after one of their frequent quarrels.

Chris Albertson remembers when she bought a Cadillac in 1926. It is thanks to Ruby's memories that we come to know how it went. Bessie and Jack were in front of the show room and she turned to him.

"That' a beautiful car," Bessie commented. "Do you like it?" Jack nodded. " Then I'll get it for you tomorrow" said Bessie. The following day, she went to the showroom, where she immediately caught the salesman's attention. […] the salesman was about to politely ask her to leave when she startled him by pointing to the convertible and declaring, "I'll take that one".
Taken aback, the salesman explained to Bessie that this was a very special and quite expensive automobile, which was intended as a showpiece, and that only two such cars had been made. Then, still not sure that she was a potential customer, he tried to talk her into looking at some of the less expensive models, but Bessie's mind was made up.
"That's the car I came here for," she said, " and I ain't buying any of them others". The salesman made a final attempt to discourage her: "Lady, if you want that car it will cost you five thousand dollars." "I'll take it" she said "and I'm going to pay cash for it". […] Bessie went beneath her skirt, dipped into her carpenter's apron, and produced a fistful of money. And paying cash, she bought the Cadillac.

Bessie frequently went to speakeasies, where she could drink a storm, and sometimes she also attended buffet flats, that in the Twenties were places were people could have fun without prohibitions or the risk that the police rushed into unexpectedly. Buffet flats were small privately owned clubs whose customers could indulge in all sorts of illegal activities. They offered drinking, gambling and erotic shows. They were usually owned by women who professionally ran their business. Often the hostess also served as a bank, a trusted woman who was entrusted valuables and amount of cash. Withdrawals could be made in the course of an evening.

Rent parties were a different form of entertainment, very popular and cheap. It was very common among the black community in Harlem. They were private parties organized with the aim of collecting money to pay the rent of the house where the party took place. The buffet was simple and homemade: fried fish or chicken, hot gut dishes and bad liquor in large quantities. Bessie sang "Gimme a reefer and a gang of gin". It is clear that it is the typical atmosphere of a buffet flat. People ate, drank, clowned and danced till dawn. A piano player o a guitarist played the music, so that they did not pay the ticket.

Sometimes Bessie liked dressing up. She wore mink coats and jewels, but she never showed off. She continued to feel sympathy for the less fortunate, even during her greatest period. She hated northern blacks who had acquired a degree of urban sophistication and tended to distance themselves from anything that might link them to the past.

In the singer's biography, Ruby, who worked as a chorine in her aunt's show, recalls how much Bessie liked to have fun with ordinary people. Here again an excerpt from Bessie's biography by Chris Albertson. The singer and Ruby are taking a break between the shows.

"C'mon,Ruby, let's go have us some fun". Knowing that they still had a couple of shows to do, Ruby was beginning to worry about Bessie, but she knew that she had better keep her mouth shut and tag along. They stepped out into the bright, cool Harlem day and turned right on Seventh Avenue, heading back toward the Lafayette Theatre. Suddenly, Bessie ducked into the alley, seated herself on a garbage can, ermine and all, and let out a laugh so hearty that passersby turned their heads to see what was going on.
Then, with her legs dangling over the side of the garbage can, she swayed back and forth, snapping her fingers and undulating her arms, shoulders, and neck. She was establishing a tempo, and when it seemed right, she turned to Ruby and said, " C'mon,Ruby, let's show ‘em !" Then she filled up the alley with her big voice: Show'em how they do it in Virginia, Hey, hey; Virginia, do it for me…. It was one of Porter's songs, from the finale of her show, and Bessie delivered it a cappella, letting her powerful voice rise above the garbage and out into the street. […] The crowd grew bigger and some people were moved to join in the song- Bessie had turned the alley into a very special stage, and everybody was loving it[…] "The more people came, the louder Bessie sang. But suddenly Bessie's husband arrived. "Without warning, Jack jumped out of the crowd and knocked Bessie off her garbage can. There was a loud crash as the metal can toppled and rolled a few feet. Jack stood there, defiantly looking down at his wife, whom he had just reduced a heap of ermine amid the trash. " You ain't nothin' but tramps, both of you," he shouted as the crowd withdrew to a safe distance and began to disperse.

The reason why Jack was so angry was that people had to pay the ticket to see the show, but we don't know how it ended between Bessie and Jack. Ruby ran away catching a taxi, too scared to remain. The audience of the blues numbered also many whites of the rural areas of the South. In the Twenties, the Ku Klux Klan was particularly dangerous and in some communities of the countryside in the small villages of the Jim Crow South, they were dangerously active with their raids, taking advantage from the hatred and suspects that some whites nourished towards the black community.

Bessie was well aware that her fans of the South, the same people who laughed at her jokes and applauded in her shows, might conceal some Ku Klux Klan members. Despite their hidden presence, she never took notice of those facts, when she toured the South. But it was during a hot, humid summer night in July 1927 that a group of hooded people visited her tent. Bessie had just finished her show and the audience was calling for an encore. One of the musicians was out of the tent for fresh air, when he heard some voices nearby. What was offered to his sight was terrifying: about six people were busy around the ropes which bound the supporting structure of the tent. The musician ran to Bessie and could hardly repeat what was going on.

Bessie did not waste any time. She asked her prop boys to follow her and went out. Here is what probably happened, as told by Bessie's sister in law Maud:

Bessie seemed fearless as she ran toward the intruders, stopping within ten feet of them. " I was told that she confronted the Klan with her hand on her hip, as she always did when something bothered her […] and that she shook her fist at them! […] Bessie shouted: " What the fuck you think you're doin'? I'll get the whole damn tent out here if I have to. You just pick up them sheets and run!". The Klansmen, apparently too stunned to move, just stood there and gawked. Bessie hurled obscenities at them until they finally turned and disappeared quietly into the darkness. "I ain't never heard of such a shit" said Bessie using one of her favorite expressions, and walked back to where her prop boys stood. " And as for you, you ain't nothing but a bunch of sissies.." Then she returned to the tent as if she had just settled a routine matter.

In 1929, Bessie officially separated from her husband after a rather difficult period, also due to the care of Jack Gee Junior, their illegally adopted son. In addition, Bessie was aware of her husband's love affair with Gertrude Saunders, singer and dancer, whose shows were financed by Jack,with Bessie's money. The two women were completely different: artistically, physically and above all they had opposite personalities.

Bessie faced her rival at least twice. The second time, after beating her, left the woman unconscious to the sidewalk. The police quickly arrived and Bessie was given a summon. In 1929 Bessie was also the protagonist of a short film entitled "St. Louis Blues", directed by Dudley Murphy. She played the role of a woman who was driven to drink by her boyfriend, Jimmy, a charming but opportunistic and cruel man. In one of the opening scenes the female protagonist, Bessie, catches Jimmy in a compromising situation with a young lady in the bedroom. The shouting match turns physical and Bessie is thrown to the floor. She has a bottle of liquor within easy reach, which she grabs and slurps, before launching into a touching introduction to "St. Louis Blues". The scene shifts to a crowed smoke-filled dive, with a desperate Bessie leaning against the bar. The "Hall Johnson Singers" are seated at tables and provide an impressive choral accompaniment. Suddenly the door bursts open and Jimmy enters.. Everyone is happy to see him, also Bessie, who falls into his arms and starts dancing to the rhythm of the music. After a few steps, Jimmy deftly reaches into her rolled up stockings and extracts some money.

With cash in hand he abandons the poor Bessie, who continues her song remaining gloomy as she stares into her beer. The film fades to a sad finish. On this occasion she showed her skill as a dramatic actress. The Depression had a devastating effect on her record sales. Between 1930 and 1931 only few thousand records were sold.

The vaudeville and the sad atmospheres of the blues were not so fashionable as before. The Lincoln Theatre in Harlem closed up and was transformed into a Baptist Church. The last recording session for Bessie was in 1933. To accompany her there was a formidable band led by pianist Buck Washington: trumpeter Frankie Newton, trombonist Jack Teagarden, tenor saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry, guitarist Bobby Johnson and bassist Billy Taylor. One song featured also Benny Goodman. "Gimme a pigfoot", "Do Your Duty", "Take Me for a Buggy Ride", "Down in the Dumps" are considered the best performed songs from Bessie's repertoire. After this session the recording studio closed for the week-end. The following Monday it opened again for the debut of an eighteen-year-old singer. Her name was Billie Holiday.

The following years were hard for Bessie and for the blues. Despite that all, the difficult economic situation never left Bessie without money. The man who had taken the place of her husband, was Richard Morgan, a Chicago gangster that had become rich with bootlegged liquor business. After a quarrelsome relationship with her husband, she seemed to find.a sort of tranquillity with her new companion. Richard was a skilled businessman, he was generous with his money, but he did not waste it. According to those who met him, he was a handsome and elegant man. He was Lionel Hampton's uncle.

Bessie's career seemed to be to its end, but some other occasion presented again. One was in 1936, when she was offered a gig at Connie's Inn in Harlem. The second was a musical which toured the South, whose name was " Broadway Rastus." It was during one transfer from one city to another, that Bessie was victim of a car accident.

It was 26 September 1937. Rather than take the train, she decided to travel in her old Packard. with Richard at the wheel. Bessie never learnt to drive a car. They left Memphis at about one in the morning, directed to Clarksdale, situated 100km south. The road was dark and seemed endless. Suddenly the rear end of a huge truck loomed before them. Richard couldn't avoid the collision. The truck, which had stopped on one side of the road, was just moving off, when the old Packard arrived. The car ricocheted backwards and then flopped on its left side. Bessie was seriously injured, one of her arms was nearly severed. A white physician, Dr Hugh Smith, was en route with a friend that night on the same road where Bessie's fatal accident happened. Dr Smith immediately slowed down, bringing his car to a halt fifty feet from the wreck of the Packard. He found Bessie in an state of shock, bleeding profusely, so he tried to administer first aid, while his friend went to a house to call an ambulance. Richard had come out from that accident unhurt.

Dr Smith's Chevrolet was in the middle of the road, when another car approached at 60 km per hour and crashed into the back of the doctor's automobile. The occupants of the wrecked car, a white couple returning from a party, were slumped over and splattered with blood. It turned out later that their conditions weren't critical, but a second ambulance was called. Bessie was placed on a stretcher and taken to G.T. Thomas Afro American Hospital in Clarksdale, while the couple to the white hospital. Both Clarksdale hospitals were country facilities, neither of which was well equipped as their counterparts in larger cities. Bessie Smith bled to death before reaching the hospital or soon after.

All the different versions given of the accident, have contributed to the confusion by colouring the account of the accident and what happened after. The account, which circulated for a period, was that she was taken to a white hospital and that she was denied medical care because she was black This version had originated by an article written for Down Beat. John Hammond,the author of the article, had based his version on rumours about the accident. Only later, the article was disproved and the witnesses gave the different version of the story.

Anyway Bessie's death became a "cause celèbre", Edward Albee recreated the story in the pièce "The Death of Bessie Smith", performed in Berlin in 1960. On Monday, October 4,1937, Philadelphia witnessed one of the most spectacular funeral in history. About 7,000 people attended the event and policemen had a hard time holding it back.

The tomb of the singer remained unmarked for a long period, since her husband affirmed he had no money for the expense. A campaign was mounted to buy a headstone. In 1970, a popular Columbia artist, whose name was Janis Joplin, and Juanita Green, a Philadelphia woman, decided to share the expense for the gravestone and a small monument. It cost 500 dollars. The stone reads: "The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing".

Bessie Smith - St. Louis Blues
The film was shot in June of 1929 in Astoria, Long Island and was shown between the years 1929 to 1932. It was Bessie Smith's only film appearence.
The film features a top notch Jazz band that includes, James P. Johnson on piano, Thomas Morris and Joe Smith on cornet, as well as the Hall Johnson Choir.
The film had an all African American cast. The co-stars were dancer/actor Jimmy Mordecai as Bessie's good for nothing boyfriend and Isabel Washington Powell as the other woman.


BESSIE, Chris Albertson, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003, p. 125,126-p.156-p.176, trad. Brunella Marinelli.
JAZZ, Arrigo Polillo, Mondadori, Milano, 1988
Bessie Smith (July, 1892 – September 26, 1937), Jackie Kay, Playground, Roma 2004
JAZZ Gli uomini, gli strumenti, gli stili. N° 36, Fabbri Editori,1986

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