Orphaned as a little girl, Bessie Smith joined a vaudeville company when she was still a child. During a performance, legendary blues singer “Ma” Rainey discovered her. Intriguing rumors surround their meeting—“legend has it that Ma Rainey literally kidnapped Bessie, that she and her husband forced the girl to tour with their show, teaching her in the process how to sing the blues.”1 In this version of the story, the women became lovers. There is little evidence to support the kidnapping or love affair, but Rainey did invite Smith to join her show; she taught Smith the music business and helped develop her voice and performance style. In this way the “Mother of the Blues” launched the career of the “Empress of the Blues.” The two women remained lifelong friends.
For the next decade, Smith traveled all over the south, singing and dancing in the tent shows that were a major venue for African-American performers—most southern theaters were closed to African-American audiences and entertainers alike. Smith’s distinct southern blues style became popular and as a result of her relentless touring, she developed a following in the south, Philadelphia and New York, and the Midwest. Smith made her first record in 1923. It sold almost 800,000 copies in a year. She made nearly eighty more records before 1930. Her most popular songs included “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Gulf Coast Blues.”
Smith rode high through the 1920s, earning more money than any other African-American entertainer. When Carl Van Vechten wrote an article for Vanity Fair about Smith in 1926, he introduced many in the magazine’s largely white audience to the blues. When Van Vechten’s friend, the poet Langston Hughes, told Smith about the article, she was not impressed:
I went back stage to meet Bessie Smith . . . . [She] says she has got herself a tent and is going back down to Bam this summer and make a few more thousands. She remembered you and your wife but didn’t seem at all concerned as to whether articles were written about her or not. And her only comment on the art of the blues was that they had put her “in de money.”2
Smith was a woman with a large personality, a raunchy sense of humor, and complex relationships with those closest to her. Her first marriage, to a Philadelphia police officer named Jack Gee, was volatile and often violent. In response, Smith turned to alcohol, and to various lovers, both men and women. Gee sometimes knew of her infidelities, but Smith concealed her relationships with women, fearing that Gee might seek revenge on her female lovers. The couple split when Smith learned that Gee was funding his lover’s show with Smith’s money.
Smith’s career slowed down in the 1930s; she struggled to update her style in light of the new jazz and swing craze. She became involved with an old friend, Richard Morgan, a quiet man who had loved her for years. Carl Van Vechten photographed Smith during this time; she arrived at his apartment between shows at a nightclub, sober and contemplative. With these photographs, Van Vechten felt he had come “closer to her real personality than I ever had before and these photographs, perhaps, are the only adequate record of her true appearance and manner that exist.”3
Bessie Smith died after a late night car accident two years after Van Vechten photographed her; she was fifty years old. Contradictory reports surround Smith’s death, which, like much of her life, remains shrouded in rumor. Some say a doctor at the scene abandoned Smith to treat a white couple who had received minor injuries in the crash. Others suggest that Smith bled to death in the ambulance on the long drive in search a of hospital that treated African Americans. It has been suggested, too, that Smith was refused treatment at a nearby white hospital. This scenario is the subject of Edward Albee’s play The Death of Bessie Smith.