Friday, November 14, 2008

Bessie Smith: “St. Louis Blues” (1929)

This is Bessie Smith in her only film appearance, a 1929 two-reeler titled “St. Louis Blues” based on W. C. Handy’s song by the same name. She sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, pianist James P. Johnson, and a string section.

Bessie Smith (1892 – 1937) was an American blues singer and the most popular female blues singer of the 1920’s and 1930’s. She was a major influence on subsequent jazz vocalists. Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin are among singers who credit her with influencing their careers.

As a way of earning money for their impoverished childhood household, Smith 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.

Her oldest brother, Clarence, had joined a musical group in 1904 but she was too young to join. However, by 1912, Clarence arranged for an audition for his sister. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company also included Ma Rainey.

By the 1920’s Smith starred in theatrical music productions and soon became a recording artist. Within a few years she became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. She made 160 recordings for Columbia Records.

Smith died from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in the fall of 1937. The funeral was attended by seven thousand people but her grave remained unmarked due to her estranged husband. In August of 1970, a tombstone was placed, paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who, as a child, had done housework for Smith.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

One of my favorite singers of all time, particularly for her earthy, often frankly sexual lyrics.