Home Pride Bessie Smith: The Empress of the Blues and an Unapologetic Bisexual Icon

Bessie Smith: The Empress of the Blues and an Unapologetic Bisexual Icon

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Bessie (Elizabeth) Smith was born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was the youngest of seven children, but by the time she was twelve, both of Bessie’s parents and two of her siblings had died. Bessie did not receive a formal education, and she and her siblings adopted by an aunt once her parents were gone. To make whatever money she could, Bessie started working as a street performer in downtown Chattanooga, singing while one of her brothers accompanied her on the guitar. The first published record of Bessie’s singing was in 1909: a story in an Indianapolis newspaper reviewing her performance at Atlanta’s 81 Theatre. The audience was impressed with the 14 year old’s contralto, or lower register.

Bessie’s older brother, Clarence, was the one to give Bessie a foot into the entertainment industry in an official capacity. He left home in 1904 to join a travelling vaudeville troupe as a comedian. Vaudeville was the primary entertainment in the United States at the time, until it was eventually replaced by the increasing presence of the silent film and the movie theatres. A variety show of sorts, vaudeville shows were a mixture of talents- with singers, dancers, comedians, and more. Following his own success, Clarence set his youngest sister Bessie up with an audition in 1912, but as a dancer rather than a singer because Ma Rainey, another familiar name from that era, was already the lead singer for that vaudeville group. Meeting and working with Ma Rainey was a huge factor in the start of Bessie’s career. Bessie was a talented actress, comedienne, and dancer, but her true gift was her music.

Both Ma Rainey and Bessie experienced same-gender attraction and had relationships with people of multiple genders; Ma Rainey was likely what we would today consider a lesbian, only marrying a man for convenience, while Bessie was proudly bisexual, enjoying sexual and romantic relationships with both men and women. While there were rumours of a relationship between the two performers, in contrast to their other very widely known affairs, any sexual nature to their relationship does appear to be just a rumour. Instead, it’s well established that Ma acted as a mentor to Bessie, and it seems likely this was the nature of their connection.

At just 24 years old (compared to Bessie’s 16 years) Ma had several years of experience travelling and performing. Many of the most successful Blues singers got their start on the vaudeville circuit, including Ma, Bessie, Ethel Waters, and several others. Bessie’s time working with someone as talented and successful as Ma Rainey shaped much of her early career. She toured with Ma Rainey’s show from 1912-1915, three years of collaboration and mentorship while Bessie honed her stage presence and talent.

In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a significant portion of record sales that came from what were known as race records. These were albums recorded by and for Black Americans, and largely included Blues, Jazz, and other genres that were outside of the mainstream, white media. Smaller, independent labels were the first to produce these works, but eventually Decca, Columbia, Paramount, and RCA were the major labels producing these race records, and they would often scout talent from the vaudeville circuit. Performers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, George W. Johnson, Mamie Smith and dozens of others became household names with these recordings. As Brian Keizer said, “Everyone in New York knew who she [Bessie] was…if you were having a party in the 20s you had some Bessie 78s.”

Bessie moved to Philadelphia by 1920, much further North than her Southern roots, and much closer to the Harlem Renaissance that was ongoing in New York. At some point between leaving Ma Rainey’s show and settling in Philadelphia, Bessie married her first husband, Earl Love. Not much is known about Bessie’s first marriage, except that Earl was a man from Mississippi and he died during the first World War. But in 1922, while living in Philadelphia, Bessie met her second husband: a security guard named Jack Gee. They married in 1923, just as Bessie’s career was about to ascend to unprecedented heights.

In the early days of 1923, Bessie signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. The deal was managed by her older brother, Clarence, who remained her business manager for many years. Her first recording session with Columbia was on February 15th, 1923, a day marked by many as an important date in music history. Three of those original recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Downhearted Blues was the single that put her on the proverbial map, selling 800,000 copies in the first ten months. It helped save Columbia Records from bankruptcy and was the single that made her the first Black artist to have a million selling record (i.e. a million copies sold). Within four years of her signing with Columbia, she’d sold six million records. Bessie became one of the first Black divas in recording history, a legacy that continues through to today including performers like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and Beyonce.

Part of Bessie’s appeal as a recording artist was her power. Even at 14, she stood out with her exceptional lower register. But now, as a fully developed performer, she was six feet tall and about 200 pounds, which combined with her experience on the vaudeville circuit, gave her a presence and a power that was potentially unprecedented. As Alberta Hunter said, “Bessie had something in her voice, something in her delivery, that tugged at your soul and inspired you to sing. There was a misery in what she did. It was as though there was something she had to get out, something she just had to bring to the fore.” Bessie’s lyrics were nothing like the mainstream, including commentary on poverty, the working class life, and the experience of a Black woman in America. She brought her perspective to the public conversation through her music’s popularity, a perspective that was sorely needed.

Despite her massive success, Bessie and her music were not welcome in many circles because she was considered “rough” and “lower class”, terms used by the mainstream to detract from her talent based on her lack of education, her race, her sexuality, and her unapologetic nature. She was arrested several times for “disorderly conduct” and illegal drinking during the era of Prohibition. Bessie wasn’t following the post-Victorian ideals of what a woman was expected to be, and she wasn’t shy about it. 

Bessie was far from the only Blues singer to live her life outside of what was considered acceptable. She often collaborated with other queer musicians; her first record was written by lesbian singer-songwriter Alberta Hunter, and Downhearted Blues was co-written by Alberta and another queer woman, Lovie Austin. During her lifetime, homosexuality was still illegal. Often, Bessie and others would refer to being “in the life” as a way of acknowledging their queer identity to others. While Bessie was very open about her sexuality, others who were “in the life” kept it behind closed doors for their own safety and self preservation. It wasn’t that no one knew or understood that these performers were queer, but it was very taboo to even acknowledge anything outside the “traditional” heterosexual, Christian ideals that were so prominent at the time.

A song from the 1920s called The Boy In The Boat contains the lyrics, “When you see two women walking hand in hand, just look them over and try to understand. They’ll go to parties, have the lights down low, only those parties where women can go.” Blues singers were removed enough from the mainstream that they could “get away” with lyrics like this. The Harlem Renaissance and its community of performers like Bessie was far enough under the radar that they could occasionally express “unconventional” love in their work. Documentarian Robert Philipson points out the singularity of this, saying, “The fact that there were any [homoerotic lyrics] was remarkable, given the times. You certainly never saw it in any other part of American culture.” Jazz and Blues thrived in speakeasies, dive bars, forbidden parties, and with that came an ability to deviate from the establishment in other ways, including being queer. In fact, there was an unspoken expectation that these Blues divas would deviate from feminine ideals, that they would be loud and brash as a sharp counterpoint to the Puritanical culture surrounding them.

In addition to being counter to American society generally, Bessie and the other Blues singers were contrary to the Black community of the early twentieth century which was overwhelmingly Christian and hostile to homosexuality. It’s interesting that so many of the early Black celebrities were queer- musicians and writers and performers all finding their own way despite the circumstances of their environment. As Brian Keizer describes, “They were an alternative culture even among their own culture where the predominant music and expression was in the church. They were alienated twice over and so they had a free space to build in.”

And the Harlem Renaissance was certainly that space, both geographically and musically. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said, “The Harlem Renaissance was surely as gay as it was Black.” Almost to an individual, the famous names and talents from that time were both queer and Black, both identities influencing their work and their legacy in a way that cannot be separated. To visit these jazz clubs and speakeasies was to enter a space where queer people were both the talent and the audience, and with its roots firmly in Harlem, this Renaissance was also overwhelmingly Black. People like Gladys Bentley, who performed in “male attire” and openly had relationships with other women could only find her footing in a place like Harlem. At the time, Harlem was almost unique in its acceptance (or at the very least tolerance) of queer people, “male and female impersonators,” and performers who otherwise lived outside of the cishet Christian experience.

As for Bessie, she was very openly bisexual, with a preference for chorus girls and dancers, specifically. Her most well known female partner was Lilian Simpson, a dancer on her touring show that she was in a relationship with for an extended period. Once, during an argument, Bessie very loudly shouted at her, “I got twelve women in this show, and I can have one every night if I want it!” Bessie was still married to Jack Gee, but their relationship involved consistent infidelity from both parties, and in Bessie’s case, with both men and women. More than once, Jack caught Bessie in the act of having sex with women, especially those who travelled with her. However, they didn’t divorce until Bessie discovered that Jack was using her money to pay for his mistress to have her own show. The woman in question was Gertrude Saunders, and it was this incident which finally ended their marriage in 1929.

Bessie Smith spent the majority of the 1920s travelling with her own performance company, with herself as the headliner and an entire entourage of dancers and stage crew that went around the country with her. She mostly performed in shows for the Theater Owners Booking Association, a vaudeville circuit for Black performers and Black communities. Audiences would compare her show to the work of a preacher, with the way she moved people during her performances. Brian Keizer calls her, “A force of nature, a personality…she set the standard. When we say she was the Empress of the Blues, that’s not just a stage name. She was the gold standard. She was the show to see.” People would travel from town to town with Bessie, following her show around the South. By the end of the 1920s she was the highest earning Black performer in the world.

Bessie owned her personal railroad car which had enough room for her, the 40 people who were part of her troupe, and anyone else in the entourage. Bessie’s niece Ruby, who travelled with Bessie for 14 years, remembers how exceptional it was for Bessie to own her own railroad car: “Everybody in the south knew that car.” It had running water, both hot and cold, seven staterooms, and two levels to house everyone who was part of her show. It was remarkable that in the 1920s, as a Black, queer woman, Bessie was so successful that she could not only afford the railroad car, but that she was able to employ almost 50 people through her show.

It’s especially impressive considering Bessie never earned any royalties from any of her recordings. Almost all of her money came from touring where she earned about $2000 per week, though of course she didn’t keep all of that, needing to pay all of her performers and other employees, as well as the cost of the tour itself. Her 1923 album saved Columbia Records from bankruptcy, but they only paid her a flat fee for that work and for any subsequent recordings, regardless of how many records she sold. Bessie was paid a fraction of what white singers were making, yet she was the artist who saved their label, her success so undeniable that she was credited with bringing Blues to the mainstream.

But with the end of the 1920s came a lot of changes. The Great Depression started, Prohibition ended, and Blues faded away as swing music took over as the more popular genre. Vaudeville was out of favour now that moving pictures were becoming increasingly common. The space that Bessie had worked so hard for was disappearing around her. Without her tour, and without any royalties from her recording contracts, Bessie took a job as a hostess at a speakeasy in Philadelphia, still performing when and where she could.

In 1930, Bessie’s pay per album side went from $200 to $125. Columbia dropped her entirely in 1931. They dropped her despite the fact that the most successful recording of her career was in 1929, just two years prior, a song called “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Unfortunately, this proved to be quite true for Bessie.

John Hammond, another producer, found Bessie working at the speakeasy and asked her to record four sides for Okeh, a different label, now that she was let go from Columbia. She was only paid $37.50 and these were her last recordings.

Despite this sudden change in fortune, Bessie didn’t quit performing, even while working long hours to pay her bills. To keep up with the changing times, she started transitioning her music from blues to swing. She even did a show at the Apollo Theater in New York where she debuted an entirely new look and sound that would have been her next era. Bessie’s final performance was in 1936 at the Famous Door on 52nd street in New York on a February afternoon.

At the age of 43, on September 26th, 1937 Bessie Smith died from injuries sustained in a car accident the day before. Her partner at the time, Richard Morgan, was driving and he survived the accident without injury. Their small car was hit by a merging NABISCO truck and Bessie died at the hospital nearby. The room in which she died has been kept as a memorial to Bessie, even after the hospital was converted into a boarding house.

Bessie’s funeral was attended by more than 5,000 people. She was buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania in an unmarked grave. It wasn’t until 1970, with the joint efforts of Janis Joplin (yes, that Janis Joplin) and a fan of Bessie’s named Juanita Green Smith, that Bessie finally received a headstone. The engraving reads, “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.” Janis died just two weeks after purchasing the headstone for Bessie.

The legacy that Bessie left could have been even greater. She was just on the edge of a major comeback, ready to retake the music world with a new image and sound, but she never got that chance. But in the decade that she was actively touring and recording, she left an indelible mark on the Western music industry. Bessie collaborated with Louis Armstrong multiple times. Mahalia Jackson learned to sing by listening to her records, adding “She haunted you even after she stopped singing.” Janis Joplin studied Bessie’s music and cites her as having a profound impact on her own writing and performance. Billie Holiday, Big Mama Thornton, Aretha Franklin, Elvis, and Nina Simone all mentioned Bessie when sharing their musical influences.

There was such a demand for her records in the 1970s that Columbia remastered them. So many new artists and young people wanted a Bessie Smith record of their own that her albums were sold for the first time in decades as a new generation discovered Bessie’s music. It’s bittersweet to know that a record company whose very existence was saved by Bessie never treated her properly, never paid her what she was worth, and even after her death, continued to profit from her work while in life, she never did. She made money by touring constantly, making more in a single day from a tour show than Columbia paid her for an entire album. And unfortunately, the only way for Bessie’s recordings to live on was for them to be re-released by Columbia, because they held all the rights.

In 1981 Bessie was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1989, she was elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

In her hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, there’s a performance hall built and named in her honour. The hall contains a performance space, a collection of African art, and a museum related to Bessie and to life in Chattanooga as she knew it at the turn of the twentieth century. Besides her posthumous accolades, this remains the most concrete memory of her contributions.



























T’Aint Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920’s – 2011 film by Robert Philipson for Shoga Films

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