Bessie Smith was crowned Empress of the Blues
Out of Chattanooga: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith
By Clifford Eberhardt
In 1923 Bessie Smith was crowned Empress of the Blues when she signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Record Company. This was done to distinguish Bessie from the other great blues singers on Columbias roster. This distinction, in Columbias opinion, signified that Bessie was the best.
In February 17, 1923 when she recorded Jealous Hearted Blues, the sales reached 600,000 in less than six months. This was a remarkable achievement when one considers that the only household entertainments were radios and few people had phonographs.
While Bessies legacy was made during the years of 1923 to 1937, in that short time she recorded 160 records and made St. Louis Blues, one of the first Negro motion pictures.
Bessie was one of the highest paid entertainers of her day. Her road tours made up to $2,000 a week. And while Bessie played to some white only audiences, her main audience was the Blacks who packed the Negro theatre circuit across America from the Grand Theatre in Chicagos South Side to the 81 Theatre on Decatur Street in Atlanta.
Indeed, Bessies career as a national and international superstar paved the way for the success Blacks have in entertainment today. Bessie is also the most celebrated person to ever come out of Chattanooga. Ironically, it is a miracle that Bessie was able to leave Chattanooga to become an international star, since, at that time Chattanooga was considered one of the most oppressive places in the South for Black to live.
Only recently has Chattanooga recognized the great legacy of Bessie Smith, and honored her with the annual Bessie Smith Strut held on Ninth Street in late June. Prior to 1960, the name of Bessie Smith was seldom mentioned in Chattanooga. And before this trilogy The Life and Times of Bessie, no literary work has linked Bessie Smith to Chattanooga.
The first novel in the trilogy The Life and Times of Bessie Smith, is entitled Out of Chattanooga. It deals with Chattanooga during the early 1900s, the religious persecution Bessie encountered from the Black Church, and the social intolerance she had to overcome from Southern whites. In the story, Bessie struggles to get out of Chattanooga and joins up with Ma Raineys Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show.
In the second novel of the trilogy entitled Back to Chattanooga," Bessie embarks on her singing career after breaking with Ma Rainey. Her professional career begins with her production of the Weekend Frolics that brought the 81 Club, a theatre in Atlanta, out of bankruptcy and back to prominence.
Bessies career skyrocketed when she signed a recording contract with Columbia Record Company. This contract, it is claimed, brought Columbia out of bankruptcy.
During Bessies rise to fame, however, her career was always in jeopardy because of her aberrant behavior. Before she became famous, Bessie met and fell in love with her first husband, Earl Love. She was quick to give up her career for the love of Earl Love.
After becoming famous, living on the edge put her career in jeopardy. Too much drinking and partying often resulted into fights and other trouble that almost destroyed Bessies career. Bessie was a hell raiser in the first degree!
The second novel in the trilogy starts during one of Bessies famous road tours with her coming back to Chattanooga after becoming a big star. Bessie gives several sold-out performances at the Liberty Theatre in Chattanooga, including a poor mans performance for her friends. During her visit to Chattanooga, she is stabbed in a fight and is not expected to live. But Bessie recovers and leaves Chattanooga vowing never to return.
The third and final novel, entitled Remembering Chattanooga, begins as Bessie is trying to revive her career during the post-depression. After 1929,her career went straight down. With the impact of the depression and the booming radio industry, the recording industry seemed on the way out along with Bessie.
During the peak of her career Bessie was accustomed to receiving $1000 advancement against royalties from her records, but in 1933 she had to settle for $50 per record. As a result, Bessie gave rent in the early 30s in Harlem to pay her rent. The song Gimme a Pigfoot tells the story about those rent parties.
Early on Sunday morning, September 26 1937, Bessies career was on the rise. She had recently recorded Nobody Knows You When Youre Down and Out, and it was selling like crazy! Now, Bessie had changed her act to appeal to the new audience of Jazz lovers, and she was being well received by the Jazz culture.
Unfortunately, on that Sunday morning Bessie was in a car that ran into a National Biscuit truck parked on the side of the road. The car she was riding in hit the truck on her side. It was reported that her arm was severed from her body in the accident.
As Bessie is losing blood, she goes in and out of consciousness. During that time the doctors are trying to save her life, and she remembers the ups and downs in her life along with the good and bad. Right before she dies, Bessie remembers Chattanooga!
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