Bessie Smith and Jack Gee radiated happiness on Thursday, June 7, 1923. Papers in hand, they rushed from Philadelphia's Orphan's Court to the home of the Reverend C. A. Tindley, who performed a simple wedding ceremony. Then it was off to a photo studio where the camera captured the happiness. Bessie is said to have been married once before, to a soldier named Love whose life ended on a European battlefield. That may be just a story, said Ruby, adding that "marriage" was a term used very loosely in Bessie's circles. She, for example had been married—with papers—"thirteen times, to nine different men." How was that possible?, I asked. She explained that, when it came to black people, clerks didn't waste any time checking old records. "And we all looked the same to them," she added, "so nobody recognized that I had been there before." Whether it was a first or second marriage, Jack was her last certified husband, but certainly not her last liaison.
|Bessie and Jack on their wedding day.|
I won't go into details here, suffice it to say that this was an often explosive roller coaster ride that lasted a remarkably long time, all things considered. Of course my book on Bessie goes into all that, at length, but my words don't come close to conjuring up a picture as vivid as Ruby's recollections.
As her recordings spread her fame, Bessie began spending much of her time touring with her own shows. She did the T.O.B.A. theaters in the winter months and worked under canvas in the summer. To make the latter go more smoothly, she bought her own railroad car, a big one that could accommodate her entire cast, including musicians, as well as props, costumes, and even a huge tent. The car was parked on a side track at each stop and the cast lived in it.
Bessie had just made her first recordings when she married Jack, but it did not take long for "Downhearted Blues" to establish her as a major act and have the Columbia dealers demand more "product." This resulted in a busy recording schedule and occasionally required Bessie to leave her show on the road for a few days while traveling to New York for recording sessions. In this brief clip, you will hear Ruby recall a time when Bessie rejoined her show after one such trip and learned that Jack had been unfaithful. This was a common occurrence, but the guilty party was more often Bessie herself.