BESSIE SMITH Biography - Musicians


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Name: Bessie Smith                                                                     
Born: 15 April 1894 Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA                                       
Died: 26 September 1937 Clarksdale, Mississippi, USA                                   
Bessie Smith (July, 1892 or April, 1894 - September 26, 1937) was the most             
popular and successful female American blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s,           
and a strong influence on subsequent generations, including Billie Holiday,           
Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Janis Joplin.                       
For the 1900 census, Bessie Smith's mother, Laura Smith, reported that Bessie         
was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July, 1892. However, for the following           
census (1910), her sister, Viola Smith, reported the date as April 15, 1894;           
that date appears on all subsequent documents and was the one observed by Bessie       
and her family. There remains a serious debate regarding the size of Bessie           
Smith's family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but       
the 1900 census reports data that is at odds with the recollections of her             
family and contemporaries.                                                             
That Bessie was the daughter of Laura (Owens) Smith and William Smith is not in       
dispute. William Smith was a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was           
listed in the 1870 census as a minister of the gospel, in Moulton, Lawrence,           
Alabama) who died before Bessie could remember him. By the time Bessie was nine,       
she had lost her mother as well, and her older sister Viola was left in charge         
of caring for her sisters and brothers.                                               
As a way of earning money for their impoverished household, Bessie and her             
brother Andrew began performing on the streets of Chattanooga as a duo, she           
singing and dancing, he accompanying on guitar; their preferred location was in       
front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of       
the city's African-American community.                                                 
In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, covertly left home by joining a small           
traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she           
would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud, "that's why he left           
without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course,         
she was only a child."                                                                 
Bessie's turn came in 1912, when Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the             
Stokes troupe and arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give her       
an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company       
also included Ma Rainey.                                                               
By the early 1920s, Bessie had starred with Sidney Bechet in "How Come?", a           
musical that made its way to Broadway, and spent several years working out of         
Atlanta's 81 Theater, performing in black theaters along the East Coast.               
Following a run-in with the producer of "How Come?", she was replaced by Alberta       
Hunter and returned to Philadelphia, where she now lived. It was there that she       
met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7,       
1923, just as her first recordings were being released by Columbia Records. The       
marriage was a stormy roller coaster affair with infidelity on both sides.             
During the marriage, Bessie became the biggest headliner on the black Theater         
Owners Booking Association ( T.O.B.A.) circuit, running a show that sometimes         
features as many as 40 troupers and made her the highest-paid black entertainer       
of her day. Gee was impressed by the money, but never adjusted to show business       
life, especially not Bessie's embrace of both sexes. In 1929, when Bessie             
learned of Jack Gee's affair with another performer, Gertrude Saunders, she           
ended the marriage, but a legal divorce was never sought. Bessie Smith                 
eventually found a common law husband in an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was       
Lionel Hampton's uncle and the antithesis of her husband, and with whom she           
stayed until her death.