"Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer..."
"Gimme a reefer and a gang of gin..."
Gimme a Pigfoot - 1933
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Known as the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her date of birth is uncertain and is variously given as 1894-6, 1898, and 1900. Bessie's career began when she was 'discovered' by none other than Ma Rainey when Ma's revue, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, was passing through Chattanooga around 1912 and she had the occasion to hear young Bessie sing. Ma took Bessie on the road with the show and communicated, consciously or not, the subtleties and intricacies of an ancient and still emerging art form.
Bessie started working small-time traveling tent shows, such as Charles P. Bailey's troupe and Pete Werley's Florida Cotton Blossoms, carnivals, and hony-tonks. Her first recording, Down Hearted Blues, was released in the spring of 1923. Though released without special promotion, it was an immediate success, and had sold over two million copies by the end of the first year of release, an immense number for that time.
As a result of her hit, she started touring on the best race artist vaudeville circuits booked by the Toby, or TOBA, short for Theatre Owners Booking Association, but also thought to stand for Tough On Black Artists. In the mid-twenties she toured the entire south and most of the major northern citites, always as the star attraction on the bill. She was the highest paid Black entertainer in the country at the time, completely booked at $1500 a week, while her records remained hot.
By 1930 her career had faltered due to the public's changing musical tastes, mismanagement of her affairs, and her heavy drinking. She had started drinking excessively in her teens and drank more heavily as time passed. Gin was her perferred drink, downing tumbler fulls at a time. Her odes to gin include Gin House Blues and Me and My Gin. In many ways Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out was an autobiographical confession for Bessie.
Bessie's last recording session in 1933 billed as a comeback, was in large measure a sentimental gesture by producer John Hammond. Her last New York appearance was in 1936 at a Sunday afternoon jam session sponsored by United Hot Clubs of America at the original Famous Door on 52nd Street.
On the eve of John Hammond's departure to Mississippi to bring her back to New York, September 27, 1937, to record again, Bessie Smith was in an automobile accident just below Clarksdale, Mississippi on the main road to Memphis. Her right arm was nearly severed in the crash, and Bessie died from loss of blood. In a 1937 article by John Hammond he reported that Bessie Smith died after being denied admission to a hospital because of her skin color. However Hammond has since admitted his report was based on hearsay, and those since interviewed who had direct knowledge of the events have made it clear that this was not the case.
Bessie Smith had a huge sweeping voice, capable of strength and tenderness, which she left behind on 160 recordings. She could convey the entire meaning of a line by a subtle accent on a syllable. She could precisely render a note, or "bend" a note to express her feelings. Bessie recorded with many of the jazz greats of her day including Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Bechet, and Joe Smith, influencing them as they influenced her. She also performed in the short movie The St. Louis Blues (1929) which affords a rare opportunity to see her sing (A must see!).
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