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Bessie Smith

A Blues Diva

Becoming the Empress

Wild Woman

It was clear to everyone who heard Bessie Smith sing that she not only had a vocal gift, but that she intuitively knew what to do with it. Her voice was throaty and loud, but unlike many other female blues artists, she didn't shout. Her timing and phrasing, in particular, were quite sophisticated. Bessie Smith was defining blues, in a sense, during this time. She used moans, groans and guttural grunts in her songs, and perfected the call-and-response duet between the vocalist and the lead instrumentalist, usually a coronet, saxophone, or trumpet. Smith's lyrics, too, were provocative, and spoke of many of the less glamorous aspects of the lives of Southern African-Americans, such as poverty, violence and alcoholism.

On June 7, 1923, Jack Gee applied for a marriage license at Orphan's Court in Philadelphia, and Bessie Smith and Jack Gee were married by Reverend C.A. Tindley. Trindley was musician himself, a gospel composer who had written a number of popular religious songs, including the famous "We Shall Overcome," which would later become the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

Smith's "Downhearted Blues" was a hit, selling 780,000 copies in six months, a staggering amount for 1923, when records were particularly expensive. "Downhearted Blues" was the best-selling blues record of its time. Columbia Records signed Smith to an eight-year contract in which she was paid a minimum of $1,500 a week. Before Smith signed the contract, Gee discovered that Clarence Williams had been cheating Bessie out of her recording fees. Gee and Smith stormed into William's office and threatened him with physical violence if he didn't release Smith from the fraudulent contract Williams had persuaded her to sign. Smith signed what seemed like a lucrative contract with Columbia Records, although she was swindled by them as well–a hidden royalty clause prevented Smith from ever receiving any of the royalties from the sales of her records.

By the end of the year, Bessie Smith had five blues hits: "Downhearted Blues", "Gulf Coast Blues", "Aggravatin' Papa", "Beale Street Mama" and "Baby Won't You Please Come Home." She wore elaborate costumes with fringed shawls and dresses, as well as heavy headdresses and jeweled caps. Smith was a bona fide diva. While on tour, Smith drank heavily, got into brawls and frequently engaged in casual sex with both men and women. Her marriage did little to discourage her from such behavior, and Gee and Smith's fights while on the road became legendary. Gee took to spying on his wife, and frequently caught Smith doing something he did not like. Smith and Gee were, in many ways, opposites–whereas she was gregarious, Gee was almost anti-social; while Smith drank almost constantly, Gee did not drink at all. Smith would often disappear for days on end, and this both troubled and angered Gee. When Gee tried to keep close tabs on Smith's behavior, she resisted, and he began beating her. Smith, who was a formidable figure, would often hit back. When Smith did disappear, it was usually to seedy saloons, where she'd drink herself into a stupor, or to sex clubs called "buffets." Often, Smith had lovers, both male and female. Smith was territorial about her troupe, often reserving female chorus members for herself and threatening anyone else who took an interest in these women. Although Smith was open about these homosexual relationships with her troupe and her friends, she kept her outside relationships secret from Gee. Smith was not the only female blues singer of the 1920s who had lesbian affairs: Ma Rainey preferred women, as did Alberta Hunter, another wildly popular blues artist of the time.

Smith first met Ruby Walker in Jack Gee's mother's living room in Harlem. It was February 1923, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, and Smith and Gee were staying with Gee's mother while Smith recorded with Columbia. Walker, Gee's niece, was struck by her aunt Bessie's prodigious voice, and instantly became a fan. Walker begged Smith to allow her to accompany the troupe on the road and Smith finally relented. Smith allowed Walker to dance on stage during Smith's costume breaks. Walker worshipped Smith and nursed dreams being a star in her own right.

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