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Empress of the Blues

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“I ain’t good-lookin’, but I’m somebody’s angel child.”
-Bessie Smith

“I think I copied my style from Louis Armstrong. Because I used to like the big volume and the big sound that Bessie Smith got when she sang … So I liked the feeling that Louis got and I wanted the big volume that Bessie Smith got. But I found that it didn’t work with me, because I didn’t have a big voice. So anyway between the two of them I sorta got Billie Holiday.”
— Billie Holiday

“She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.”
-Janis Joplin

 “She haunted you even after she stopped singing.”
-Mahalia Jackson 

Force of Nature

The force of nature that was Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, approximately  July 15, 1892.

And let me cue you up people, she was a real crossfire musical hurricane, a perfect storm of talent and will. A powerful and mighty voice.  A cultural tornando that thundered through the world and conqured all in her path

She was the daughter of Laura Snow and William Urie, a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher. The preacher died while his daughter was too young to remember him. By the time young Bessie was nine, her mother and a brother had also died. Her older sister Viola took charge of raising and caring for her siblings.

According to Wikipedia; “To earn money for their impoverished household, Smith and her brother Andrew began busking on the streets of Chattanooga. She sang and danced as he played the guitar. Their favorite location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets, in the heart of the city’s African-American community.”

Road Warrior

By the time she became the bona fide superstar whose influence earned her the nickname “The Empress of the Blues,” Smith had been singing for decades. Get this, in an age when helicopter parents helio-hover around their children every every nanosecond, Bessie went out on the road when she was 16. During this era, you couldn’t make it as a one-trick pony, so she expanded her repertoire. She became an all-around entertainer, and developed an act that consisted of songs, dances, jokes and sketches.

Now, I’m going to sing the praises of Bessie in somewhat of a blues vernacular. Yes, although it is true she became a “torch singer” later in life as a way of reinventing herself like so many artists have over the years, Bessie will always be thought of as a white hot blues singer. It’s important to note that while she was still known internationally as the “Empress of the Blues,” she created her new personna to remain relevant culturally, and to increase both her range and audience appeal.

This was a hard-living lady who knew hard times, and savored all the good things that came her way.

Here’s a good story that comes from Jerry Desmond, in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, wrote about Bessie’s only appearance in Chattanooga after achieving stardom: “After her performance at the Liberty Theater, Smith attended a party given by a friend, where she knocked down a drunken admirer who was pestering her. The would-be admirer then stabbed Smith, who chased him for several blocks before collapsing. She was taken to the hospital but returned to the stage the next night.” 

Depression Era Smash Hit

Now y’all, here’s one of her most famous songs, which was written during the depression era by an obscure white singer named Jimmy Cox, which was covered by some English guitar God and a long-haired hippie from North Florida by way of Macon, Georgia on an ablum you may have heard of; “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.”

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out

Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spent all my money, didn’t have any care
Took all my friends out for a mighty good time
Bought bootleg whisky, champagne and wine

Then I began to fall so low
Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go
I get my hands on a dollar again
I’m gonna hang on to it till that eagle grins

Cause no, no, nobody knows you
When you’re down and out
In your pocket, not one penny
And as for friends, you don’t have any

When you finally get back up on your feet again
Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend
Said it’s mighty strange, without a doubt
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out

When you finally get back upon your feet again
Everybody wants to be your good old long-lost friend
Said it’s mighty strange
Nobody knows you
Nobody knows you
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out

Yes, Bessie made that song world-famous, which is what a great vocal stylist does. Can I get an Amen?

Blues Savant   

As I said previously, so many blues songs are introspective and brooding, but ultimately joyous. Never forget the wise words of another American original. I’m talking about the magnificent writer, Mr. Albert Murray.

“The blues is not the creation of a crushed-spirited people. It is the product of a forward-looking, upward-striving people.”

Before Liberace, Bessie knew how to wow an audience! Her onstage costumes of gowns, wigs, plumes and elaborate headdresses communicated glamour and wealth, and she carried herself with a regal bearing that fit her nickname. But it is Smith’s singing voice, of course, that is the main element that made her a legend.  Given her life experiences in extreme poverty and hardship, Smith’s authoritative delivery conveyed an authenticity that suggested she had actually lived through the things she sang about. A superb storyteller, and a multi-talented entertainer, she made prodigious use of her skills as vocalist, actress and comedian to develop convincing and compelling performances, live and on record. And we are the benficiaries of those recordings.

Little Girl Blue Learned Well

Janis Joplin went right to the source, studying Smith’s records and putting what she heard into the recordings she made as a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company and as a solo artist. (In 1970, Joplin also acknowledged her debt to Smith by contributing money to purchase a headstone for Smith’s grave, which had been unmarked since her burial in 1937).  Also, to give a new generation access to this essential music, in 1970 Columbia Records started the process of reissuing the 160 sides that Smith had recorded over the course of her career; the multi-volume set affirmed her significance with the auspicious title “Bessie Smith: The World’s Greatest Blues Singer.”

She Also Lit a Torch

Sporting almost an entirely new set list, and look, she was billed as the “Queen of All Torch Singers,” and the “Empress of the Blues,” when she appeared at the Apollo Theater in 1935. The horsehair wigs, feathers and beads were replaced by a smart, simple satin evening gown and her own hair, swept back and accented by a pair of teardrop earrings. She sang the popular fare of the day, songs like “Tea for Two” and “ Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” “She would have been right up there with the rest of us in the Swing Era,” said Lionel Hampton, whose favorite uncle was Bessie’s new boyfriend. “She always adapted the now sound, whatever that became, but we never got around to recording it.”

In September 1937, just as she was about to enter the Swing Era spot­ light, as fate would have it, Bessie Smith was fatally injured in an automobile accident at the ripe old-age of 43, on a dark Mississippi highway. And, wouldn’t you know it, that accident took place on a highway you may have heard of: Highway 61. 

No Bessie Smith: 

No Janis Joplin

No B.B. King Live at the Regal

No Bonnie Raitt

No Billie Holiday

No Ella Fitzgerald

No Dinah Washington

No Sarah Vaughan

No Aretha Franklin

No Mahalia Jackson

“Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
 – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world. There was no choice but to be pioneers; no time to be beginners.”
-Margaret H. Hamilton (M.I.T. scientist resposnsible for the computer software on all Apollo missions, including Apollo 11.)

Trailblazer. That would be Bessie in a nutshell.