Bessie Smith
(1894 - 1937)

It's said that a debate about who might be the best male blues singer could last all night, but ask who is the best female blues singer, and you'll all get a good night's sleep - Bessie Smith - next question? While there were many to rival her in her day, none matched her combination of gifts and skills. In particular, no one ever sang with the sheer intensity of lived or imagined experience in which her blues was steeped.

Whenever we hear a woman sing the blues, whether it be on some dim recording, or with a cheerful jazz band on a riverboat, we almost always hear something of Bessie. From the indigo melancholy of Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out to the swaggering jollity of Gimme a Pigfoot, her singing teaches almost every lesson a blues vocalist needs to know.

Bessie was born in Chattanooga, TN, learning her trade as a singer in travelling shows with older blues singer Ma Rainey. By the early twenties, she was in New York, making her first recording for Columbia in 1923. During that period she starred in revues such as Harlem Frolics which played at every significant black theater in the country. When touring, she took her own band, but on her earliest records she tended to sing with just a pianist - Clarence Williams or Fletcher Henderson.

The slump in record-making that came with the depression seemed to end Bessie's career in 1931, but two years later, John Hammond, who had hunted her down to the seedy Harlem theaters which were now the best gigs she could get, set up a session for her and hired a splendid band including trombonist Jack Teagarden, Frankie Newton on trumpet and Chu Berry on tenor. The four songs from this session are among her admirers' favorites, especially the party anthem Gimme a Pigfoot (and a bottle of beer). But they were out of tune with the favored singing styles of the swing era and proved to be her swansong. Four years later, while on tour in the South, Bessie was seriously injured in a road accident in northern Mississippi, and died before she reached the hospital. Hammond reported to the press that she had been turned away from a whites-only hospital, but that was later proved to be mistaken.

Bessie Smith's musical legacy has been shared by singers as different as Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin, while her life story has inspired writers like James Baldwin and Edward Albee. Her most poignant memorial however, apart from her recordings, is the short film drama St. Louis Blues, in which she sings a magnificent extended version of that most famous song.

Copyright 2003 by Tony Russell/

Blues Beginnings: The Blues in Popular Music