|TRIBUTE TO BESSIE SMITH
Tiziana Ghiglioni (vocals), Oscar Klein (trumpet), Dick Wellstood (piano), Lino Patruno (guitar)
Bessie Smith (July, 1892 or April, 1894 -- September 26, 1937) was the most popular and successful female American blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s.
For the 1900 census, Bessie Smith's mother, Laura Smith, reported that Bessie was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July, 1892. However, for the following census (1910), her sister, Viola Smith, reported the date as April 15, 1894; that date appears on all subsequent documents and was the one observed by the entire Smith family. There remains a serious debate regarding the size of Bessie Smith's family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but the 1900 census reports data that is at odds with the recollections of her family and contemporaries.
That she was the daughter of Laura (Owens) Smith and William Smith is not in dispute. 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 Bessie 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 now lived. 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, especially not Smith's bisexuality. In 1929, when Smith learned of Jack 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, and with whom she stayed until her death.