The greatest of all the women who have sung the blues, Bessie Smith brought to the idiom, on material of very variable quality and style, an unmatched intensity of expression, subtlety of inflection and beauty of tone. By her example she imparted lessons in phrasing to jazz instrumentalists, as well as designing a model of blues singing for her contemporaries and successors, from Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington to Janis Joplin.
Smith developed her skills during the second decade of the century in travelling shows, working for a time with Ma Rainey. In the early twenties she worked with bands and in vaudeville in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, before embarking on a recording career with Columbia in 1923. She was promptly successful with 'Down Hearted Blues'/'Gulf Coast Blues'* (the B-side of which had been a hit the previous year for Alberta Hunter on Paramount) and its follow-ups, generally accompanied on piano by Clarence Williams or Fletcher Henderson. In 1924 she initiated Columbia's new 'race' catalogue (the 14000-D series) with 'Chicago Bound Blues', and later that year she collaborated with Louis Armstrong in her immortal version of 'The St Louis Blues'. Other favourite accompanists were Joe Smith and Tommy Ladnier (cornet), Charlie Green (trombone), Don Redman (clarinet/alto), Buster Bailey (clarinet) and James P. Johnson (piano).
She also recorded a few duets with her fellow Columbia artist Clara Smith b. c. 1894, Spartanburg, South Carolina, d. 2 February 1935, Detroit, Michigan): a fine singer, known as 'The Queen of the Moaners', whose recording career spanned much the same period (1923-32), she had no outstanding successes, bar 'Chicago Blues' (1924).
Besides blues, Smith also recorded popular songs like 'I Ain't Got Nobody' (1925) and Irving Berlin's 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' (1927); suggestive pieces - 'I Want Ev'ry Bit of It' (1926), 'Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl' (1931); and the mock-gospel 'On Revival Day' (1930), but few of them approached the quality of statuesque blues performances like 'Young Woman's Blues' (1926) or 'Back-Water Blues' (1927, about that year's disastrous Southern floods).
Throughout the twenties she was a headline attraction at black theatres across the country, often touring her own shows Harlem Frolics, Yellow Girl Revue, Steamboat Days and Happy Times. In 1929 she made a short film, a dramatization of her now-celebrated St Louis Blues. She recorded her last Columbia sides in 1931, but two years later John Hammond recalled her to cut a session for the company's subsidiary Okeh. She was backed by Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry and, on the roistering 'Gimme a Pigfoot', Benny Goodman. The four-song date found her not only in good voice but evidently adaptable to the peppier rhythms of what would be called the swing era. But there were no subsequent sessions, and she returned to touring, in more humble revues. On one such trip she was injured in a road accident in northern Mississippi and died, possibly from shock and delayed treatment; the early accounts alleging racist carelessness seem to have been mistaken.
In addition to several biographies, the best of which is Chris Albertson's Bessie (1972), her life and music inspired other writings - including Edward Albee's 1959 play Death of Bessie Smith - and writers, James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones) among them. Her musical influence has been more diffuse than almost any other figure in the blues: she has been acknowledged as a model by Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Jimmy Rushing, Teagarden and innumerable blueswomen. Her complete works were reissued by Columbia on five double-albums (1971-3).
*This title sold at least a million copies
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