But I digress. The point is I said in my Madonna feature that blues singer Bessie Smith, deserved more coverage and as her death day approacheth (26th September) now seems like the time to crack out a short profile of the woman Betty Davis growls about on her track ‘They Say I’m Different’
Today when you make it big (not you), you might buy a jet, a private plane to take you and your hangers-on to exotic locations. Ms Smith bought a Pullman railroad car. Painted bright yellow, people in their thousands would come to see this status symbol chug in to the station. The Pullman also allowed Smith and her musicians to avoid the South’s apartheid laws and to sleep and eat in luxury. Not bad for someone who began their career as an orphaned 9 year old singing on the streets for pennies.
I put it to you that Bessie Smith sang the Blues but lived the Rock and Roll life before it had been officially invented. Smith could and did have any young man or woman who took her fancy (though unlike Ma Rainey Smith never sang about the women she loved). Smith is the woman who solved all disputes with her fists and continued to drink Moonshine after Prohibition. Bessie Smith knew every bar and buffet club (look it up, turns out the buffet party definition does not stop at drinks and nibbles) in the South and beyond.
In 1937, having survived the Depression, her abusive husband Jack Gee and the decline in Blues music’s popularity, Bessie Smith died in a car crash on Route 61. Her body lay in an unmarked grave until 1970, when finally a Philadelphia housewife drew attention to this injustice. Juanita Green, who had cleaned Bessie’s house as a girl and Janis Joplin (in recognition of all she owed Bessie Smith musically) donated money for the headstone laid down in August 1970. It reads:
The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing. Bessie Smith, 1894-1937