By Mike Greenblatt
Backed only by a piano, Bessie “The Empress Of The Blues” Smith [1894-1937] recorded “Blue Spirit Blues” on Oct. 11, 1929. Compared with other Roaring Twenties recordings, her voice is clear, distinct and true.
Now most of that is simply Bessie singing as only she could. But at least a little bit of credit is owed to the superior sound technology at Columbia Records at the time, says John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records.
For eight years (1923-1931), Bessie Smith recorded the songs that have since sold millions of records and have sold well to this day.
“She was uptown blues,” says Tefteller, “as opposed to Mississippi delta blues. She was backed by jazz bands, recorded in New York and sang all kinds of music. Louis Armstrong himself was even one of her backup players.”
Smith’s prowess is evidenced by Legacy Records’ 2012 release “Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings.” The stunning 10-CD boxed set featured many of her classic sides, including “Blue Spirit Blues” (Disc 8, Track 5), in which Smith sings about her own death.
“Had a dream last night that I was dead
Evil Spirits all around my bed
The Devil came and grabbed my hand
Took me way down to that red hot land
Mean blue spirits stuck their forks in me
Demons with their eyelids dripping blood
Dragging sinners through that brimstone flood …”
She had no idea that she would soon find out for herself what death would be like. By the time Smith died on Sept. 26, 1937, while awaiting help from a car crash, she hadn’t recorded in six years. The events surrounding her death are incomprehensible to understand and shrouded in myth and mystery. She was 43, a superstar in the black communities across the country. Yet there she lay, dazed, bleeding on Route 61 connecting Tennessee and Mississippi. As precious life ebbed out of her, first responders argued that they could not take her to the closest hospital because it was for whites only.
So she was taken to a “colored-only” hospital much further away, according to accounts. Whether this travesty of justice actually occurred, it provided the basis for Edward Albee’s 1959 one-act play, “The Death Of Bessie Smith.” The story gained international attention because, at the time, John Hammond of Columbia Records had perpetuated the myth in the November 1937 issue of DownBeat magazine.
What we do know is that a doctor, who happened to be fishing nearby, did try to help Smith. By the time the ambulance arrived, Smith had lost a lot of blood and was in shock from her injuries. Her right arm, which had been hanging out the window and had taken the full force of the blunt trauma, was severed. They driver, who was believed to be one of her many lovers, escaped unscathed. Smith’s husband never paid for a headstone. Janis Joplin finally did, though, just days before she died of a heroin overdose in 1970. In our never-ending quest for the truth, Goldmine is collaborating with a historian to get to the bottom of the truth about that sad day. Stay tuned for updates.
For less than $25, you can enjoy “Blue Spirit Blues” (along with 23 other rare recordings) on the CD accompanying the 2014 Blues Images calendar. But if you want to go old school and enjoy it on one of the original 78s (Columbia 14527-D), be prepared to kiss some cash goodbye. “It would cost somewhere between $500 and $800,” Tefteller says.
Bessie Smith has been recognized posthumously as the greatest female blues singer of all time. Every female vocalist since has worked to live up to Smith’s massive reputation as a swinging, drinking, swaggering ballsy mama who liked her liquor and her men almost as much as she liked her reefer. God bless her soul. GM