Bessie Smith

"Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer..."
"Gimme a reefer and a gang of gin..."
Gimme a Pigfoot - 1933

Go To Discography | Biography | Classic Blues Singers | Blues Online© Home Page


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!).


Bessie Smith (vocal) with:
1923 February 17 Down Hearted Blues.
Clarence Williams (piano).
1923 April 7 Ticket Agent Ease Your Window Down.
Robert Robbins (violin); Irving Johns (piano).
1923 September 21 Jailhouse Blues.
Irving Johns (piano).
1924 July 23 House Rent Blues.
Charlie Green (trombone); Fletcher Henderson (piano).
1924 September 26 Weeping Willow Blues.
Joe Smith (cornet); Charlie Green (trombone); Fred Longshaw (piano).
1924 December 6 Follow The Deal On Down.
Buster Bailey and Don Redman (clarinets); Fred Longshaw (piano).
1925 January 24 St. Louis Blues; Reckless Blues; You've Been A Good Ole Wagon; Sobbin' Hearted Blues; Cold In Hand Blues.
Louis Armstrong (cornet); Fred Longshaw (harmonium on first two; piano on last three).
1925 May 5 Cake Walking Babies; The Yellow Dog Blues.
Joe Smith (trumpet); Charlie Green (trombone); Buster Bailey (clarinet); Coleman Hawkins (tenor sax); Fletcher Henderson (piano); Charlie Dixon (banjo); Bob Escudero (tuba); Kaiser Marshall (drums).
1925 May 26 Careless Love Blues; Nashville Woman's Blues.
1925 May 27 I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle; J.C. Holmes Blues.
Louis Armstrong (cornet); Fred Longshaw (piano); Charlie Green (trombone).
1925 November 18 At the Christmas Ball.
Joe Smith (trumpet); Charlie Green (trombone); Fletcher Henderson (piano).
1926 March 18 Jazzbo Brown From Memphis Town; The Gin House Blues.
Fletcher Henderson (piano); Buster Bailey (clarinet).
1926 May 4 Baby Doll; Money Blues; Lost Your Head Blues.
Joe Smith (trumpet); Fletcher Henderson (piano).
1926 October 10 One and Two Blues; Young Woman's Blues.
Joe Smith (trumpet); Buster Bailey (clarinet); Fletcher Henderson (piano).
1927 March 2 Alexander's Ragtime Band; Muddy Water; After You've Gone; There'll Be a Hot Time In the Old Town Tonight.
Joe Smith (trumpet); Fletcher Henderson (piano); Charlie Dixon (banjo); Jimmy Harrison (trombone). Coleman Hawkins plays clarinet on the first two; Buster Bailey plays clarinet on the last three.
1927 March 3 Trombone Cholly.
Joe Smith (cornet); Charlie Green (trombone); Fletcher Henderson (piano).
1927 September 27 Mean Old Bedbug Blues; A Good Man Is Hard To Find.
Porter Grainger (piano); Lincoln Conoway (guitar).
1928 March 20 Empty Bed Blues.
Charlie Green (trombone); Porter Grainger (piano).
1928 August 24 Poor Man's Blues.
Joe Williams (trombone); Ernest "Sticky" Elliot, Bob Fuller (saxes); Porter Grainger (piano).
1928 August 25 Me and My Gin.
Joe Williams (trombone); Porter Grainger (piano).
1929 May 29 Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out.
Ed Allen (cornet); Clarence Williams (piano); Cyrus St. Clair (tuba).
1930 March 27 New Orleans Hop Scop Blues.
Louis Bacon (trumpet); Charlie Green (trombone); Garvin Bushnell (clarinet); Clarence Williams (piano).
1930 July 22 Black Mountain Blues.
Unknown trumpet and piano. (Possibly Deamus Dean or Ed Allen with Clarence Williams).
1931 November 20 I Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl.
Fred Langshaw or Clarence Williams (piano).
1933 November 24 Gimme a Pigfoot; Take Me For a Buggy Ride; Do Your Duty; I'm Down In the Dumps.
Frankie Newton (trumpet); Jack Teagarden (trombone); Chu Berry (tenor sax); Buck Washington (piano); Bobby Johnson (guitar); Billy Taylor (bass). Benny Goodman plays in Pigfoot.

Go To Biography | Discography | Classic Blues Singers | Blues Online© Home Page

Blues Online© Copyright 1995-1997 Joel M. Snow. All Rights Reserved.
Joel Snow
Created September 17, 1995
Revised October 7, 1997