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Bessie Smith (Chattanooga, Tennessee, April 15, 1894 – Clarksdale, Mississippi, September 27, 1937), known as the “Empress of the Blues,” was the most popular blues singer of the 20s and 30s and the most influential in the singers who followed her.
Bessie Smith combined an unusual sense of rhythm with extreme sensitivity to correct pitch and diction, a trait that allowed her to reach a wide audience. His way of articulating notes and words, using a great variety of rhythmic and tonal approaches, contributed to his performances a great elegance and a certain appearance of improvisation.
Smith’s first job was as a dancer in the company Moses Stokes in a show that also worked Ma Rainey, who did not teach him to sing, but that probably helped him to develop in its beginnings. In 1912, his brother Clarence got him his first contract as a professional.
Smith began to develop his own show around 1913, in the theater “81” of Atlanta, in 1917 was discovered in a club of Selma, Alabama, by Frank Walker (of the record Columbia) and in 1920 had managed to win a reputation in the south and along the entire east coast of the United States.
In 1923, when the blues began to sell records, he signed with Columbia records, and quickly drew the line of the Theater Owners Bookers Association. His first recording was Down Hearted Blues, recorded in New York in February 1923, a song written and previously recorded by Alberta Hunter. That same year he also recorded Jailhouse Blues, a record that, in a certain sense, “marks the appearance of classic blues”
Working hard in the theater during the winter months and traveling the rest of the year (she had her own rail car), Smith became the best-paid black actress of her time. He made recordings with the most important artists of the moment, such as Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, or Fletcher Henderson.
With Louis Armstrong he recorded the track “St. Louis Blues”, which “is the epitome of classic blues and stands out for the extraordinary balance between vocal and cornet solo”
Smith’s career was short due to a combination of alcoholism, the Great Depression (which paralyzed the entire record industry) and the birth of vaudeville. Smith, however, never stopped performing. While the days of elaborate shows were fashionable, she continued to travel and occasionally spent time singing in clubs.
In 1929 he starred in the short film St. Louis Blues (he sings the song “St. Louis Blues” together with members of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, the “Hall Johnson” choir and in a musical environment radically different from the rest of her recordings) and also worked on a Broadway flop called Pansy, a musical in which all the critics agreed that she was the only actress to excel.
John Hammond convinced her to record four songs for the Okeh house in 1933, after watching her perform at the Philadelphia nightclub. These were going to be his final recordings, of great interest since the band of accompaniment included musicians of the Era of the Swing of the category of Frankie Newton and Chu Berry. Even Benny Goodman, who was in the adjoining studio, approached to collaborate with an almost inaudible participation. Hammond was not satisfied with the result, preferring to put on the B side the old blues, but “Take Me For A Buggy Ride” and “Gimme a Pigfoot” are among his most popular recordings.
Smith resumed his trips adding swing to his repertoire and achieving some success.
On September 26, 1937 he suffered a serious car accident while traveling to a concert in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was heading, along the state of Mississippi, on Highway 61 with his partner (and Lionel Hampton’s uncle) Richard Morgan. They took her to the Afro-Hospital in Clarksdale, where they had to have her arm amputated. He never regained consciousness and died that morning.
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