Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bessie Smith

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States on April 15, 1894, Bessie Smith was one of six surviving children of William and Laura Smith. William Smith was a laborer who also worked as a part-time Baptist preacher, but he died before Bessie could remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, she had lost her mother as well, and her older sister Viola was left in charge of caring for the younger sisters and brothers. As a way of earning money for her impoverished household, Bessie and her younger brother Andrew began performing on the streets of Chattanooga as a singer/guitarist duo. In 1904, her oldest brother Clarence left home to tour with a small traveling theatre company.

When Clarence returned to Chattanooga in 1912 with the Moses Stokes Theatre Company, he arranged for the troupe's managers Lonnie and Cora Fisher to give his sister an audition. Bessie was initially hired as a dancer. The show included Ma Rainey, who did not teach Smith to sing but probably helped her develop a stage presence. Smith began developing her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theatre. By 1920 she had gained a reputation in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.

In 1923, when blues had become popular enough to begin selling records, Smith was signed by Columbia records, and quickly rose to stardom as a headliner on the T. O. B. A. (Theater Owners' Booking Association) theater circuit. Her biggest recorded hit was "Down Hearted Blues", a song written and previously recorded by Alberta Hunter. Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day.

In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called Pansy, a musical in which, the top white critics agreed, she was the only asset. John Hammond asked her to record four sides for the Okeh label in 1933 after seeing her perform in a Philadelphia nightclub. These performances, for which Hammond paid her $37.50 each, were her final recordings.

On September 26, 1937, Smith was severely injured in a car accident while traveling from a concert in Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi. She was taken to the segregated Afro-Hospital and her arm was amputated, but she never regained consciousness and died that morning.

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