Why Blues Titan Bessie Smith Still Kills It

HBO is betting that millennials will embrace a female blues singer born in the 19th century. Given the undying power of her music, HBO just might be right.

Edward Elcha/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty

Can you guess the artist?

A strong, confident black woman rises from performing on the streets to superstardom. Her music is filled with talk of sex and violence, and her private life is just as transgressive as her lyrics. Rumors circulate about her hookups with various men and women, and she even hints at these affairs in her songs. Many are shocked, but audiences flock to her performances and her recordings sell millions of copies.

Maybe Nicki Minaj? Or Rihanna? Or some other in-your-face hip-hop diva.

No, you’re not even close.

Here’s one last clue: my mystery singer was born in 1894.

Yes, ladies such as Bessie Smith did exist back during the Victorian era. Well, at least one woman like that was around. And she became the biggest-selling black female singer of her day. Even white audiences fell under Bessie Smith’s spell, and the major record companies of the era soon figured out they needed to sign her, or find someone else who could imitate her.

But no one could really imitate Bessie Smith. Even now, almost a century after the release of her first records, she still stands out as the greatest blues singer in history. You can hear the echoes of her style in current-day divas such as Ruthie Foster, who just a few days ago got honored by the Blues Foundation as best female blues singer of the year, or Cécile McLorin Salvant, who was picked as top female jazz vocalist in the most recent Down Beat critics poll.

No singer is hotter in the jazz world right now than 25-year-old Salvant, but she will sing a song by Bessie Smith at almost every performance. When I spoke to her recently about her influences, Smith’s name was the first one she mentioned. “Bessie Smith,” Salvant added, “is very important to me.”

Singers still learn from Bessie Smith, and for a very good reason. These songs work like a charm in live performance, even in the year 2015. They are filled with raw passion and raunchy comedy. They tell stories that seem just as relevant today as when Smith recorded them during the Calvin Coolidge administration. In fact, they might be even more appropriate in the current day, almost as if this blues singer from our great-grandma’s generation were sending a time capsule to millennials.

Frankly, I’m not surprised that HBO decided to turn Bessie Smith’s life into a biopic. I’m only puzzled why it took so long. Of all the celebrity entertainers from the first half of the 20th century, Bessie Smith is the one most suited for a posthumous revival. She was Nicki Minaj before there was a Nicki Minaj. She wrote the rulebook for hip-hop ladies before hip-hop existed. She was the Empress of the Blues, and her reign never really ended.

HBO’s casting of Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith was an inspired choice. Who better to play an Empress than a Queen? “I had no idea who Bessie Smith was, to be honest with you,” Latifah recently admitted to an interviewer. But after she had immersed herself in Smith’s music, she walked away in awe. “I could hear her voice in so many people who came after her,” Latifah has explained. “If there was a Bessie Smith alive today, she’d blow everyone else out of the water.” Now Latifah is charged with convincing others who know nothing about Bessie Smith why they should care about a singer whose most important recordings were made almost 90 years ago. I have a hunch that she will succeed.

Bessie Smith’s life story may be filled with rule-breaking and hell-raising, but also conforms to the classic rags-to-riches formula of traditional American narratives. Smith was an orphan before the age of ten, and survived by performing on the streets of her native Chattanooga, Tennessee along with her brother Andrew. She toured with blues singer Ma Rainey while still in her teens, but soon went out on her own as a star attraction, performing in theaters and tent shows in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.

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Smith dazzled audiences in live performance, with her larger-than-life stage presence and a big, earthy voice that could reach the back row in the days before microphones and amplification. But her recordings made her into a superstar, and even today I listen in rapt admiration to these old tracks, wondering how such a fragile medium of sound waves preserved in grooves on a shellac disk can contain so much life force and emotional power.

Clearly audiences in the ’20s felt the same. Smith’s 1923 recording of “Downhearted Blues” would eventually sell 2 million copies, and she followed it up with more than a dozen other mega-hits over the next half-decade. At the peak of her fame, she was earning $2,000 per week (equivalent to $25,000 in 2015 purchasing power) and traveled in her own private rail car as part of an entourage of 40 troupers.

Smith was fearless, both onstage and off. Stories circulate of her staring down the Ku Klux Klan, or taking on an impertinent drunk in a fistfight. Many have been inspired by her courage, and not just musicians. Edward Albee drew on her biography for his play The Death of Bessie Smith, and J.D. Salinger did the same in his short story “Blue Melody.” Editor David Lehman included one Smith’s song lyrics, “Empty Bed Blues,” in The Oxford Book of American Poetry, where it appears alongside works by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

Author James Baldwin later stressed the influence of Bessie Smith on his illustrious career. “I was working on my first novel—I thought I would never be able to finish it,” he recalled. But the blues singer helped him find his own voice as a writer. “I played Bessie Smith every day. A lot of the book is in dialogue, and I corrected things according to what I was able to hear when Bessie sang… It’s that tone, that sound which is in me.”

No other blues singer could challenge her. But Bessie Smith finally encountered an obstacle she couldn’t overcome. The Great Depression destroyed the U.S. recording industry. Record sales declined by more than 90 percent, and the labels exited the blues market even faster than they had entered it a few years before.

Smith’s voice never lost its magic, and she continued to perform wherever she could find work. And I am confident that she would have enjoyed renewed acclaim in the post World War II era, when mainstream America began its love affair with R&B and the first stirrings of the blues revival reverberated through the music industry.

But she never got the chance. Smith died on September 26, 1937 from injuries suffered in an auto collision while heading to an engagement in Darling, Mississippi. She was just 43 years old. In the aftermath of her death, many debated whether she could have been saved with better medical intervention after the accident. Rumors circulated about her death just as they had about her life, almost as her artistry were a footnote to all the gossip and scandalmongering.

Smith deserved better. She still does. She earned our respect through her music and her bravery in the face of obstacles that would have overwhelmed a less courageous woman. Above all, she deserves that revival she never enjoyed during her lifetime. Perhaps she will finally get it in 2015, thanks to Queen Latifah and HBO.