Local History Column: Blues icon Bessie Smith was the Empress of Soul

Singer Bessie Smith in 1936, a year before she was killed in a car accident at age 43. (Photo by Carl Van Vechten/United States Library of Congress)

The Blue Goose Hollow Trail Head, which opened in August to extend the Riverwalk 3.5 miles to the base of Lookout Mountain, will take you right through Bessie Smith country.

Bessie was born in 1894 to William and Laura Smith. The family lived in a one-room shack in Blue Goose Hollow, a slum area inhabited by African-Americans and a few poor whites.

Her laborer-minister father died when Bessie was an infant, the youngest of seven children. After their mother died when Bessie was 9, her eldest sister, Viola, moved them into a tenement apartment in Tannery Flats, a little further along where the Riverwalk is today.

To support them, Viola took in laundry, and Clarence, the eldest brother, did odd jobs until 1904, when he left town to join a minstrel troupe.

Bessie completed the eighth grade while starting her entertainment career on the street corners of Chattanooga. Accompanied by her brother, Andrew, on the guitar, she sang for change that people passing by threw at them.

A favorite location was outside the White Elephant Saloon at 13th and Elm streets. Nearby was East Ninth Street, popularly called "Big Nine," a vibrant musical venue comparable to Beale Street in Memphis.

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In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Moses Stokes Minstrel Troupe. After hearing his sister sing at an amateur night at the Ivory Theatre, he arranged an audition for her. Bessie was hired as a dancer and left town with her brother. She joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and became friends with Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, often called the Mother of the Blues.

By 1918, Bessie was performing as a duo with Hazel Green while developing her own solo act that included both blues and comedy. She married Earl Love, who died before she settled in Philadelphia in 1922.

In 1923, Bessie made her first recording in New York City with Columbia Records, where her song "Down Hearted Blues" sold 780,000 copies in the first six months of its release. Thereafter, Bessie played to packed audiences throughout the South, North and Midwest.

She earned $2,000 a week and by 1924 was the highest paid black entertainer in the country. She wrote many of her own songs and sang and recorded with Louis Armstrong, who played trumpet on nine of her records.

Jerry Desmond, in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, wrote about Bessie's only appearance in Chattanooga after achieving stardom: "After her performance at the Liberty Theater, Smith attended a party given by a friend, where she knocked down a drunken admirer who was pestering her.

The would-be admirer then stabbed Smith, who chased him for several blocks before collapsing. She was taken to the hospital but returned to the stage the next night." She was a large woman whose booming voice could easily be heard without a microphone. She appeared in silk gowns, elaborate headdresses, strings of pearls, and feather boas - and became an icon of the 1920s.

In 1923, Bessie married Jack Gee, a night watchman, but the marriage didn't last. Her third husband was Richard Morgan, a Chicago bootlegger who was more supportive.

In the 1930s, her popularity waned. Radio exposure became more important, and Bessie's suggestive lyrics were censored. The Great Depression caused record sales to decline, and live performances gave way to the movies.

Bessie included more swing music in her repertoire and performed with artists like Count Basie. She wore fashionable gowns and dispensed with the headgear, achieving a more modern look. She was set to perform with Benny Goodman and had plans to start recording again when she was killed in a car accident near Clarksdale, Miss., in 1937. Bessie was only 43.

Her grave near Philadelphia in Sharon Hill, Pa., was unmarked until 1970, when Janis Joplin, whose own style was influenced by Bessie, and Juanita Green, the daughter of one of Bessie's employees, paid for the erection of her gravestone. It is inscribed with the message, "The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing."

To understand why Bessie enjoys that reputation, it is important to listen to her music. To hear Bessie sing is to love her. You will understand why she is called the Empress of Soul, why Chattanooga has a performance hall named after her, and why the Bessie Smith Strut, a key event at this year's Riverbend Festival, is scheduled for June 12. Don't miss it!

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.