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Bessie Smith

Wild Woman

A Blues Diva

Love on the Road

Bessie Smith's relationship with Ruby Walker was close and complex. Walker became Smith's closest confidant on the road. Walker was Smith's best friend, and served as Smith's messenger and decoy–one of her functions was to lure Jack Gee away when Smith was in the middle of a tryst. Smith relied heavily on Walker, but was unwilling to let Walker have any independence of her own. For example, if Walker were interested in a young man in the troupe and Smith caught wind of it, Smith would claim the young man for her own.

Smith's powers of seduction were exceptional, and she easily beat out more traditionally attractive women because of her charisma and extraordinary talent. Smith had an incredible, irresistible presence. In addition, Smith often took advantage of her position as the employer of the young women in her troupe. Her chorus was made up of young women willing to work for cheap wages. Their hopes for stardom and financial circumstance gave Smith a substantial amount of leverage over them.

Although Smith's behavior was often out of control, she was well in control of her career. The Twenties was an age in which it was difficult for women to be independent, but Smith managed both her own career and those of her troupe members. Despite her relative autonomy, however, Smith's career was dependent on the Theater Owner's Booking Association, known as TOBA, which scheduled and supported Smith's tours. Since Smith made no effort to extend her career outside of the musical world and try theater or film, she was even more dependent on TOBA.

Smith was Columbia's "Race Records" star, and both TOBA and Columbia flourished in the mid- to late-Twenties, both propelled by Smith's success. In 1924, Smith recorded "Sorrowful Blues", which was another smash hit. She was commanding up to $2,000 a week, a princely sum for the time, and lavished gifts upon those she loved. Smith also sent much of her money to her sister Viola, who was now living in a house in Philadelphia that Smith had bought for her. Jack Gee found this infuriating. He felt that Smith should turn over all of her money to him, and he was particularly incensed by the fact that in order to see any of the money, he had to ask Viola. Tensions between Gee and the Smiths, to whom Bessie was always fiercely loyal, arose frequently.

Later that year, Bessie Smtih appeared for the first time on radio, singing a set on a station in Memphis, Tennessee. Smith's hard-living antics continued, and sometimes led to dangerous altercations. In 1925, during her triumphant return to Chattanooga starring in her own show at the Liberty Theater, Smith was almost killed at an after-show party. A drunken man made unwanted advances toward one of Smith's chorus girls, and Smith punched him. The man waited outside for Smith, and when she left to go home, he plunged a knife into her side. Smith ran after her assailant for a few blocks before collapsing. Although the wound was quite serious, Smith was back on stage the next afternoon.

On January fourteen, 1925, Smith walked into Columbia's New York studio to record five songs with Louis Armstrong. The session produced what is largely considered one of the best blues recordings in music history: St. Louis Blues. With Armstrong on coronet and Fred Longshaw on reed organ, Smith belted out a rendition of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" which is still considered the gold standard for that song. Smith was now regularly collaborating with the top jazz musicians of the day, including saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, bandleader and arranger Don Redman, bandleader Fletcher Henderson, and pianist James P. Johnson.

In the meantime, Smith had also adopted a six-year-old boy she named Jack Gee, Jr.. Every time Smith's tours took her through Macon, Georgia, she would visit an ex-chorus girl from her troupe and her little boy, whom Smith called "Snooks." Eventually, Smith adopted the boy and moved him to Philadelphia to live with her sisters while she was on tour. Much of Smith's happiness was wrapped up in this child, but Jack Gee, Sr. was indifferent at best. Gee and Smith had now been married nearly two and a half years, and the relationship, which had always been volatile, was deteriorating. Smith clung to the union, however, because in spite of all her infidelities, she adored her husband. In the autumn of 1925, Smith took the season off and stayed in Philadelphia with her son and her sisters. Gee, who now knew of the Smith's numerous affairs and the extent of her drinking problem, beat Smith often. He also harbored a great deal of anger toward Smith's family, whom he saw as leeches.

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