Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith was a successful vaudeville entertainer who became the highest paid African American performer of the Roaring Twenties. This revised and expanded biography debunks many of the myths that have circulated since her untimely death in 1937.
Writing with insight and candor about the singer’s personal life and career, the author supplements his research with dozens of interviews with her relatives, friends, and associates—in particular Ruby Walker Smith, a niece by marriage who toured with Bessie for over a decade. Also included in this updated edition are more details of Bessie’s early years, new interview material, and a chapter devoted to events and responses that followed the book’s original publication.
“The product of painstaking research . . . Devastating, provocative, and enlightening.” —Los Angeles Times
|Publisher:||Yale University Press (Ignition)|
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No time to marry, no time to settle down; I'm a young woman, and I ain't done runnin' aroun'. "Young Woman's Blues"
On Monday, October 4, 1937, Philadelphia witnessed one of the most spectacular funerals in its history. Bessie Smith, a black superstar of the previous decade — a "has-been," fatally injured on a dark Mississippi road eight days earlier — was given a send-off befitting the star she had never really ceased to be.
Two days earlier, on a cold Saturday morning, Bessie's brother Clarence, his wife, Maud, and a prominent local funeral director, William Upshur, Jr., quietly awaited the arrival of Bessie's body at Philadelphia's Thirtieth Street station. They had waited there since early evening, reminiscing about Bessie while a succession of delay announcements rang from the loudspeakers. When the train still had not arrived at two thirty, Sunday morning, they decided to go home and return a few hours later. It was almost ten o'clock before the train finally pulled into the station, hugged the platform, and came to a steamy halt. "I'll never forget it," said Maud in a 1972 interview for this book, "as people got off the train, I kept expecting to see Bessie, but it was Richard [Morgan] who walked off that train, and I remember clearly the grief in his eyes."
Bessie and Richard had known each other for close to twenty years. They had been romantically involved for the past six, traveling thousands of miles together before making this last trip home from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Maud never got along with Bessie's husband, Jack Gee, but she liked Richard and now felt closer to him than ever before. As they embraced that morning, she noticed a small tear in the left shoulder of his dark suit, and it made her hug him just a little harder. "I still can't believe that Richard was in that car," she said, "he would have been killed, too, the way that car was smashed up."
Only Upshur seemed unmoved as they waited silently for the pine box of Bessie's remains to be lowered to the platform — to him, this was business with a nice promotional edge; to Richard, it marked the end of a short, sometimes bumpy trail; to Maud, the railroad station setting unleashed a floodgate of memories, good and bad; to Clarence, it was also a painful reminder of good times shared with Bessie on the road, but, above all, it brought home the fact that he had lost his favorite sister.
The Empress of the Blues lay in state at Upshur's funeral home on Twenty-first and Christian Streets. No one came to see her on the first day. But word of the funeral soon circulated, and when the black press published the details, the body had to be moved to the O. V. Catto Elks Lodge, which more readily accommodated the estimated ten thousand mourners who filed past her bier on Sunday, October 3.
What they saw told them little about the remarkable woman whose last performance was being played out; Bessie's serene face gave no hint of the turbulence that had characterized her life. "They said she looked good and peaceful, poor Bessie," her niece, Ruby Walker, recalled. Her final costume was a long silk gown described by one newspaper as a farewell gift from Jack Gee, her estranged husband. She had recently admired this dress, the paper said, but not been able to afford it. "That should be turned around," suggested Maud thirty-five years later. "Maybe he was wearing a suit he never could afford, which Bessie bought for him." Actually, Bessie's life insurance paid for the gown.
Bessie's moments of artistic triumph and prosperity were eight years in the past, but the insurance policy helped bring back some of the glitter, affording her a grand exit in a five-hundred-dollar silvery metallic coffin, trimmed with gold and lined with pink two-tone velvet. The lining, suggested a reporter, matched Bessie's "flesh-colored" gown and slippers.
The auditorium of the O. V. Catto Elks Lodge at Sixteenth and Fitzwater Streets had on happier occasions resounded with Bessie's powerful voice and the cheers of those who came to hear it. Now some of the same people quietly filled the hall, testing its capacity long before the Reverend Andrew J. Sullivan mounted the pulpit and intoned the ceremony's opening words.
Sobs competed with Sullivan's ministerial voice, which rose solemnly from behind a pyramid of forty floral arrangements and bounced off the ceiling. When a Mrs. Emily Moten read a poem called "Oh, Life," a small commotion in the rear sent two registered nurses rushing to revive a swooned sobber. Three other mourners, including Bessie's oldest sister, Viola, passed out before dancer (and sometimes female impersonator) Rubberlegs Williams and a choir brought the service to a tearful conclusion with an emotional rendering of "My Buddy," a pop song that the day's gay subculture referred to as the lesbian national anthem. The song had been a hit in 1922, when Bessie, living in that same Philadelphia neighborhood, stood at the threshold of success.
Many people from Bessie's inner circle resented Jack's presence. They knew that his marriage to Bessie had been a continuous contest of physical and emotional strength, with only a sprinkling of blissful moments, and they saw his attendance as being hypocritical. Bessie and Jack had been separated for seven years, and each had established a new relationship during that time, but neither had seemed ready to put an official end to the marriage. Some friends optimistically took that as a sign of simmering love, but more levelheaded people labeled it a procrastination. Bessie and Richard Morgan enjoyed a more harmonious relationship. To be sure, there were bumps in their road, but arguments never turned physical, and it appears that each had remained faithful to the other. Of the two men, Maud decidedly preferred Richard and, in retrospect, felt that he should have been a greater presence at the funeral. This, however, was 1937 and society did not regard common-law husbands as members in good standing, so Richard stayed in the background during the funeral. Jack Gee took full advantage of the situation; as Richard's presence went unnoticed by the press, he unashamedly made himself the focus. Seeking out journalists from the black press, he put his own spin on the relationship, leaving the impression that he and Bessie had never lost touch and that she never ceased to regard him as her "man."
Leading a small group of close relatives and friends — including Bessie's three sisters, her brother Clarence, his wife, Maud, and Thomas J. Hill, a nephew — Jack moved slowly toward the open casket for a final look at his wife. Some papers fancifully reported that he threw himself at Bessie's still form, that he wept, and that forty-five minutes passed before the six young pallbearers could lift the casket onto their shoulders and bear it out into the street. "Jack didn't throw himself over no casket," recalled Maud, "but he was good for putting up a cry, he'd cry in two minutes, and I'd have to say 'Stop those crocodile tears, Jack,' because he was just putting on a show."
The crowd outside was now seven thousand strong, and policemen were having a hard time holding it back. To those who had known Bessie in better days, the sight was a familiar one, but this was undoubtedly the largest crowd she had ever attracted.
As the front doors of the hall opened, mourners broke through police lines and pressed forward for a final glimpse. In the shoving match that followed, a woman and her child were knocked down and injured before calm could be restored and the ritual continued.
As the professional pallbearers, who had never known Bessie, ceremoniously carried her casket a block down Sixteenth Street to the waiting hearse, the procession began to take shape; at its head, flanked by a tight-packed mob of mourners and onlookers, a choir softly intoned "Rest in Peace."
It was 4:20 P.M. before the cortege of thirty-nine cars began to move; another half hour before the last car passed in front of the Elks Lodge. The procession did not head straight for the cemetery but — as if to give South Philadelphia a last look at the Empress — crawled along Fitzwater Street, turning right at Eighteenth, and right again at Lombard. Making another right at Twelfth Street, it moved south into Bessie's neighborhood, past the Standard Theater at South Street, and across Kater, coming within a block of Bessie's house. Everyone seemed to know whose final journey this was, and all who stopped to view the procession seemed to be touched by it. A journalist reported seeing men dressed in rags bowing their heads and watching teary eyed as the procession disappear from their view.
Today, photo opportunity alone would guarantee the presence of celebrities at a star's funeral, but Bessie was laid to rest without the presence of major show business personalities. Several celebrities, including Ethel Waters, had promised their presence, but no major star showed up. Performers, promoters, and others in the entertainment field who later claimed Bessie as friend, idol, or inspiration were conspicuously absent. Although Claude Hopkins, Duke Ellington, Noble Sissle, Buck and Bubbles, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ethel Waters, and the cast of the Cotton Club Revue sent telegrams, only a handful of local show people and a few of her former chorines represented the industry of which Bessie had been such a big part.
At dusk Bessie's body was laid to rest in grave number 3, range 12, lot 20, section C, of Mount Lawn Cemetery in nearby Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, where a hundred and fifty people watched a small group of mourners form a semicircle around a sunken, marble-finished burial vault.
A reporter dramatized the scene for Philadelphia Tribune readers:
Two heavily veiled women wept steadily. In the strained silence, the breathing of the men was plainly audible. The clergyman cleared his throat softly, "I am the resurrection and the life ..." The casket slid down into the grave. A woman screamed, and the broad shoulders of Jack Gee heaved and writhed as he buried his face in his hands. Hoarse sobs broke from his lips. "Bessie! Oh, Bessie ..."
"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes. ..." The minister closed his book. The mourners faltered forward to cast their flowers into the grave. Bessie Smith Gee, late "Queen of the Blues," was but a memory.
The airtight vault was guaranteed against corrosion or leakage for a hundred years. The funeral had cost approximately a thousand dollars, about half of what Bessie made in one of her better weeks. The grave remained unmarked for thirty-three years.
Jazz documentation was in its infancy at the time of Bessie's death. In Robert Goffin's Aux Frontières du jazz, published in 1932, and Hughes Panassie's Le Jazz Hot, published two years later, both writers plunged naively into their subject, led only by enthusiasm and curiosity. Lacking detailed information, their books offered an occasionally blurred view of jazz, but they inspired new writers who gradually pieced together the details of African-American music's development. By 1937, jazz had entered a new phase of development, and the hot, highly rhythmic sounds of swing groups and big bands was beginning to attract an impressive following that would eventually — for the first and only time — make jazz America's most popular music. Although a small cadre of dedicated writers sought to put it all into perspective, the main focus of the press soon shifted to the activities of the big swing bands and their star instrumentalists. In the process, historical data came to light by default; pioneers related amusing stories, but little effort was made to verify them, so myths were inadvertently planted. Some of these stories found a life of their own and have endured into the next millennium.
Bessie Smith was acknowledged as an important figure, but details of her life and career were overshadowed by the controversy surrounding her death — a controversy that, it turns out, had its genesis in sloppy reporting.
The pioneer jazz writers — all white and mostly European — embraced the music with tremendous enthusiasm, but showed little understanding of its social significance, and even less of the African-American culture that fostered it. They wrote of the music with awe and admiration, treated it with a reverence one might accord Bach or Beethoven, but all too frequently spoke of black artists in patronizing terms. By the late 1930s, the first American jazz critics had signed in, but extraordinary artists were still being portrayed with condescension and their personal lives trivialized — Bessie's death, the writers seemed to say, was tragic not so much because a human life had been lost as because it meant she wouldn't be making any more records for blues fans to collect.
It was not until the mid-1940s that writers began looking in earnest into the details of Bessie's life. Even then it was the blues singer and not the woman who interested them. The research was superficial and focused largely on her recording career, but some significant memories were recorded before it was too late. People remembered Bessie as crude, tough, or ill-mannered; irresponsible, passionate, kind, or generous. She was all these things, but the most vivid recollection was that of her extraordinary powers as a performer. Bessie's commanding singing voice, her superb timing, and her thoroughly musical approach to even the most banal material was something no one in her field could match. Her vocal material was often written by Tin Pan Alley tune-smiths, but she reshaped their songs and charged them with joy and sorrow that appeared to be born of personal experience. She was also a natural entertainer who danced with flair if not grace, and she performed comedy routines with enviable skill.
Throughout her life, Bessie moved in a subculture that white America fostered but has only in recent years begun to understand. Her unique talent and unflagging quest for a good time took her into a third world of segregated black entertainment where, in an atmosphere of make-believe, she stubbornly remained herself.
If she had a goal, no one knew just what it was, but it was clear to those close to her that Bessie Smith yearned for acceptance rather than acclaim and that she did not see the two as being one and the same. Without playing the usual show business games and lacking the benefit of a modern-day promotional machine, she ascended to a level that no other African-American artist of her time and genre had reached. And when she tumbled from the pinnacle she landed without bitterness, gathered up the pieces, and began another climb.
Between the climb and the fall, Bessie Smith turned six glorious, eventful years into a love feast with millions of followers who clamored for her songs of romance, misery, and joy, and marveled at her ability to embrace fame with her feet firmly grounded.
Before 1972, when this biography appeared in its original version, those few years of costly glory had been the most frequently, if not accurately, chronicled. Less had been written about her last seven years, when she paid the price, and virtually nothing about her first twenty-five years, when she stood in the wings.
Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on a date that will probably never be verified. It was a time when Southern bureaucracy made little distinction between its black population and its dogs, so official records, such as a birth certificate, were not always deemed necessary. African-American people often recorded such events themselves, in the family Bible, but no such registry has turned up from the Smith household. Bessie was known to lower her age a bit in later years, but April 15, 1894 — the date given on her 1923 application for a marriage license — is probably a correct birth date.
Located 138 miles southeast of Nashville, on the Tennessee River, Chattanooga was settled as a trading post in 1828. In the mid-nineteenth century, when railroads reached it, the small settlement grew in importance and population. By 1900, it had become an important trade center with a population of thirty thousand, almost 50 percent of which was black. In the 1890s, less than thirty years after the Thirteenth Amendment officially abolished slavery in the United States, most black Americans accepted poverty as a fact of life; in a very real sense, their enslavement continued, albeit in a veiled, more subtle form. By the turn of the century, a black middle class — mostly composed of teachers — was emerging in Chattanooga, but — in the minds of whites — education did not alter their status as second-class citizens. Most African Americans faced a bleak future of servitude with low-paying, demeaning jobs.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bessie"
Copyright © 2003 Chris Albertson.
Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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