Skip over navigation

Bessie Smith

Controversy

The Death of Bessie Smith

Study and Essay

Bessie Smith's funeral was scheduled for October 4, 1937, in a small funeral home in Philadelphia. However, the outpouring of grief was so great that her wake was moved to O.V. Catto Elks Lodge, where ten thousand mourners filed past her coffin on October 3. Smith's funeral was a lavish affair. Seven thousand admirers stood outside the Lodge on 21st and Christian Streets, and watched as her gold-trimmed, velvet-lined coffin was carried out and placed in a hearse for interment in Mount Lawn Cemetery. For all the elegance and splendor in which Smith was remembered at her funeral, she went without a headstone for nearly thirty-five years.

Jack Gee collected all the money that was due to Smith for the sales of her records. Gee refused to buy his ex-wife a headstone, and her family, for unknown reasons, did too. In 1948, Smith's friends held a Bessie Smith Memorial Concert in New York to raise funds for the headstone. The concert was a success, but Gee pocketed the proceeds and disappeared.

In 1959, playwright Edward Albee wrote a play called "The Death of Bessie Smith." Albee had been so moved and so outraged by Smith's death that he'd written a play recreating the night of Smith's death. The play premiered in West Berlin in 1960.

In 1970, singer Janis Joplin–who considered Smith a great influence on her own music–and Juanita Green, an old employee of the Smith family's and the president of the North Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, pitched in to buy Smith a proper headstone. The epitaph they chose reads: "The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing."

A number of significant and highly successful musicians of various genres claim Bessie Smith as an influence. Billie Holiday considered Bessie Smith a kind of teacher through her records. Though Holiday's voice did not have the same kind of power as Smith's, Holiday's musical phrasing and interpretation find parallels in Bessie's innovations. Frank Sinatra considered Bessie Smith an early blues genius, and though his sound was much more polished than Bessie's, he found inspiration in the emotional undercurrents of her versions of many standards. Janis Joplin identified so strongly with Bessie Smith that she sometimes told friends that she felt she was Bessie Smith reincarnated. Her rasping, guttural voice and her tendency to shout are all throwbacks to Bessie Smith. The unabashed sexuality of Joplin's singing, too, can be credited to Bessie Smith's influence.

That same year, Columbia reissued Bessie Smith's complete output on five double albums. The collection won two Grammy awards. She was inducted into the Rock- and-Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and, in 1992, the United States Postal Service honored her with a stamp.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us