February 16, 2021
By Nate Little and Alexander Shragis
As part of Black History Month, the Phoenix present Nate’s Favorite Facts: A Journey Through African American History.
The turn of the 20th century marked a rise in jazz singers of all sorts, but none were quite like Bessie Smith. Born April 15th, 1894 in Tennessee, Bessie faced more struggles during her childhood than most face in a lifetime. She was orphaned by the age of 10, and was raised with her other siblings by an aggrieved sister in Chattanooga, singing to make ends meet. Even as a child, her talent was apparent, and she gained a following and joined various singing tour groups.
By 24, Bessie set out on her own solo career. Even among other Jazz and Blues musicians, Smith had her own unique blend of performance and vocal talents that set her apart. She could throw her voice across a crowded concert hall, even without the assistance of a microphone.
But more impressive than her vocal abilities was the power and emotions that came through in her songs. She grabbed people with her voice, and pulled them into a depth of sorrows and lamentations. Her voice shook people to their core. “She just upset you” said Jazz historian Danny Barker in Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It, “How [those preachers and evangelists] moved people, Bessie did the same thing on stage.”
"There was a misery in what she did," said Alberta Hunter, who wrote the lyrics to Smith's first commercial release, "Downhearted Blues." "It was as though there was something she had to get out, something she just had to bring to the fore."
Bessie released her greatest hit, “Downhearted Blues,” on February 16th, 1923. Although it was already a hit song for several artists, Smith’s version still sold 780,000 copies in the first year. She also added to the song: “I got the world in a jug, the stopper in my hand,”
Smith would go on to sell millions of records, an unfathomable accomplishment for someone with her roots in poverty. Smith’s gravitas and the feelings she evoked in people when she sang still have an impact on music today. Several jazz musicians still cite her as an inspiration, and her work--which was sampled or derived in many jazz and rock n’ roll songs of the 70s and 80s--have found their way into modern hip hop and pop songs. Today we remember her success, talent, and the fire she lit in the hearts of any who heard her.