Blues singer Bessie Smith was the highest-paid black entertainer in America during the 1920s. She had a slew of hit records and toured so much that she had her own railroad car. When Smith died in 1937 as a result of an automobile accident on Highway 61, she was barely scraping by. Fans, friends, and family raised money to put up a stone more than once, but her husband pocketed the money every time. Her grave went unmarked until 1970, when singer Janis Joplin (with an old friend of Smith) bought her a tombstone. The inscription reads, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”
Joplin is just one of numerous performers who felt they owed a debt to Smith. The two most important American singers of the 20th century; Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, both proclaimed Smith as a pivotal influence. Yet Smith has largely been forgotten by the general public. Much of this has to do with the primitive recording techniques of Smith’s time. Some of her records, which sounded bright and vibrant to audiences in the 1920s, sound scratchy and tinny to modern ears. The freshness of Smith’s vocals doesn’t come across when remastered on MP3 files or CDs. The early songs still sound like what they were, 78 rpm records meant to be played on Victrolas, especially those recorded before 1926.
Columbia Records has just reissued Smith’s recordings on a 10-disc set complete with informative liner notes at a midline price. The music has been available since the early 1990s in five 2-CD sets. It has not been mastered again since, but this release does make all of the music available in one place with an affordable price tag.
Smith hit it big as a recording artist right from the start. Her first release in 1923, “Down Hearted Blues”, sold 750,000 copies in six months. Smith sang about a man who has done her wrong and then left. “He mistreated me all the time” she complained and then sighed, “To the good Lord ev’ry night I pray / Please send my man back to me.” No wonder she had the blues. “It seems like trouble is gonna follow me to my grave”, she crooned. But there was something defiant in her voice. Smith sang the blues as a declaration of life. She expressed deep feelings, and the strong emotions of young, black women resonated with both black and white audiences at the time. Before the year was over, Smith recorded a total of 27 songs. They all bear the distinctive Smith belting out the lyrics while remaining vulnerable; torch songs that set the place on fire.
Many of the songs were risqué, even by today’s standards, with titles like “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” and “If You Don’t, I Know Who Will”. She also recorded several of her best-known songs during 1923, most notably “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do” and “Any Woman’s Blues”. While many of the tunes resemble each other as they followed a commercially successful blues formula, some of them were just plain strange like “Cemetery Blues” that concerned a gal who finds love with a ghost in the graveyard because she gets happy just listening to a shroud covered corpse rattle his bones!
The 1923 recordings generally feature minimal instrumental accompaniment, mostly just a piano (frequently played by Fletcher Henderson or Clarence Williams). Smith carried the weight of the songs herself through the force of her personality. Whether she was being sultry or silly, tough or vulnerable, her voice dominates the recordings. It is a well-known truism that whatever song Smith sang instantly became recognizable as Smith’s song no matter if it was recorded by someone else first.
The 26 sides she recorded during 1924 continued in the same vein, with tracks such as “Eavesdropper’s Blues”, “Moonshine Blues” and “Sing Sing Prison Blues”. The biggest difference between her 1923 and 1924 recordings has to do with her accompaniment. Now she is frequently backed by instruments including a clarinet, trombone, violin, saxophone, trombone, and such—although not on the same session. There are generally only two side-musicians on each cut.
By 1925, Smith was joined by the great Louis Armstrong on cornet on songs like W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and Fletcher Henderson’s Hot Six on Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues”. The arrangements are more complex. Her style is still raw, but it is wrapped in a more sophisticated trapping. She used her voice to harmonize and conversationalist with her players rather than just belt out the material. She still puts out records at a prolific pace with 24 new sides. And she continues to sing the blues, but Smith also stretches out a bit on songs like the up-tempo “Cake Walkin’ Babies From Home” and her self-penned diatribe “I’ve Been Mistreated and I Don’t Like It”.
Her stage career was going full blazes by 1926, which perhaps explains why she only recorded 14 songs that year. The recordings themselves have improved in quality. On songs like “Hard Time Blues” and “Money Blues” that feature minimal instrumental accompaniment, her voice comes off as rich and strong, where previous recordings had a harsher edge. Smith’s manages to shout, trill, croon, and sing. On her well-known “Young Woman’s Blues”, she weeps out of loneliness and brags about the many men she’s going to have in a blues voice that demands attention even as she sings, “Nobody knows me / Nobody knows what I’ve done.” But she’s at the top of her game and a big star live and on record.
She continues along the same vein in 1927. She always had a playful side, even when the subjects of her songs were morbid. This is certainly the case on “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair” with the immortal lines, “I had my knife and went insane / And the rest you ought to know / Judge, judge, please mister judge / Send me to the ‘lectric chair” to a bouncy accompaniment. Most of her songs are about how men abuse her, such as on “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Sweet Mistreater”, but she seems to find some masochistic pleasure. It seems like a nasty man is more sexually satisfying than a tame one. Unfortunately, this paralleled her love life where she coupled with men that stole and took advantage of her.
But let’s face it, Smith was known as a rough, crude and sometimes violent woman. Being an independent black woman in the 1920s required being tough. That’s what makes her so compelling. By 1928, her persona is well-known that when Smith sings tunes such as “Empty Bed Blues Parts 1 and 2” or “Slow and Easy Man”, you know she’s looking for a sexual partner, not a lover. Smith still sounds great, but her style has not really changed since earlier in the decade. Her career starts to fade despite the fact that she put out some of her best work from 1929-1931, such as the gospel “Moan, You Moaners” and the sultry hokum of “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl”.
Smith, who was known as the “Empress of the Blues”, was dropped from the Columbia Record label in 1931 because her blues were out of fashion and hard times have hit the country. She recorded four more songs in 1933 for John Hammond on the Okeh label, which proved she still had enormous talent. After all, she was not even 40 years old. Two of the four songs, the barroom ballad “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer” and the foxy “Do Your Duty” are among her best remembered material.
And that’s all she recorded, 160 sides for Columbia and 4 for Okeh, all included on this box set along with 5 alternate takes, a few tracks she sang for the movie St. Louis Blues, and an interview with Smith’s niece Ruby. Smith died in a car crash in 1937, and there has been speculation surrounding the circumstances surrounding her death—most notably in Edward Albee’s play “The Death of Bessie Smith”. The songs Smith left behind will continue to be played and influence new generations of singers, not because of her technical virtuosity as much as the raw emotionality with which she imbued her material. Not only would we not have had Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Janis Joplin without Smith, we wouldn’t have singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele. It’s impossible to overstate Smith’s influence. “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.” indeed.