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10/28/10

The Death of Bessie Smith


Early recounting of jazz history is a weave of truth and conjectures. The music's pioneer chroniclers were unquestionably dedicated to the subject, but they often skipped the tedious task of conducting research, and simply perpetuated whatever sounded interesting to them. One reason for their cavalier approach may well have been the abundance of first-hand accounts available to them. Short of sitting down with Buddy Bolden, there were few stones that couldn't be upturned. Also, bear in mind that one couldn't stick a recording machine into one's pocket, and few writers had mastered shorthand (I only met one, Whitney Balliett). All this to point out that the field was fertile ground for myths.

Forty years ago, when I began work on my Bessie Smith biography, I was determined to bust as many of these myths as I could. Bessie was no singing wallflower or paragon of virtue, but neither was she scandalous by the day's show business standards. Hedonism went with the territory, and she led an active and sometimes outrageous life at home as well as on the road. If Bessie's off-stage adventures seemed a tad wilder than most, it was perhaps because her commanding presence demanded attention and few things she did escaped notice. Still, some writers used their Imagination and came up with such fantasies as her being kidnapped and dumped at Ma Rainey's feet, kicking and screaming her way out of a potato sack, or volunteering as a maid for her bed-ridden record producer, Frank Walker, or forced by Depression economy to take a job as a speakeasy hostess and selling chewing gum and candy in theater aisles. None of this was true, but it made good copy—never mind that even light research would have turned up better stories of exploits that actually did take place. 

One Bessie Smith myth was bigger than all the others combined: the story of how she bled to death, the victim of a Southern hospital's racist policy. Initial press reports did not hint of any such occurrence, but there were street whispers, and when they reached John Hammond's ears, he saw in  them an opportune irony that could both serve his leftist agenda and sell records. That the tale was riddled with holes did not seem to deter anyone from perpetuating it, not even John, who regarded himself as a member of the press. Had he simply picked up the phone and made a call or two, he could have written a piece that set the record straight, but he chose instead to give the rumor legitimacy in a piece written for the November 1937 issue of Down Beat.

This is when the myth grew legs that would keep it going for three decades, inspire a young Edward Albee to base upon it a one act play, The Death of Bessie Smith, and make Bessie almost as known for the alleged way in which she died as she was for her remarkable artistry.

Richard Morgan and Bessie pose in front of her old Packard in 1937
While John Hammond and others ignored the aforementioned holes in this story, some were justifiably skeptical. They included folklorist John Lomax, who in 1941 wrote a letter of inquiry to Walter Chandler, the Mayor of Memphis. In his response, the mayor correctly pointed out that the accident had not occurred in his city, as alleged by Hammond, but added that the country "is infested by Negro communists who seek to poison their own people against their best friends." If Lomax harbored further doubts about the story's veracity, he does not seem to have done anything about it. However, in 1957, Down Beat's George Hoefer, a jazz journalist of unusual integrity, made an attempt to get at the truth, but his findings were largely ignored—the myth refused to die, even after evidence to the contrary was published.

When I informed John Hammond that Bessie was, in fact, never refused admittance to a white hospital, and played for him the account attached to this post, he appeared to be embarrassed and did not give me an argument. I was therefore surprised to find in his 1977 autobiography, John Hammond on Record, a contrived story of how he was told "a long and convincing story" by "a man who was in a position to know the truth." He added that "there were two other people there nodding agreement as he told it to me." Why had John not told me this when he knew that I was researching Bessie's death? Because, he explained in his book, the man asked not to be quoted.  Yes, pigs do fly.


Flo Kennedy, the late attorney, was a good friend of mine, but she stopped speaking to me after the publication of Bessie. A couple of years later, she broke her silence and explained: "I know you wrote the truth about Bessie's death, but you should have left it alone."

Dr. Hugh Smith in the 1960s

It was George Hoefer's 1957 article that sent me on the trail of Dr. Hugh Smith. I knew only that he had been an intern at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis at the time of Bessie's accident and that he had in some way attended to her.  "I don't know how far back your personnel records go," I said when I called the clinic in 1971, "but I am trying to locate Dr. Hugh Smith, who was an intern in 1937." The lady on the other end of the phone asked me if I wished to be connected to Dr. Smith. He was still there and had long been the head of the clinic. Sometimes, one call can make a very big difference. Dr. Smith told me that he was tired of reading all these stories about how Bessie bled to death, so he would not give me an interview. However, he recommended that I read the liner notes on Columbia's latest reissue, because that was as close as he had seen anyone get to the facts. When I told him that I wrote the notes, he said that he would be happy to answer my questions and suggested that I mail them to him. He would send me a tape with the answers.







Here is that recording, made public for the first time. If you have read my book, you will notice that this was a valuable source. I hope you listen to the entire tape, including the surprise ending. I won't say any more about that, but your comments are welcomed.





Click on image to enlarge
Bessie's casket leaves the church in Philadelphia for a slow tour through her neighborhood, stopping
briefly at the Standard Theater before heading for Mount Lawn Cemetery in nearby Sharon Hill.



32 comments:

  1. Wow! The tape was fascinating, and surprisingly detailed. Doc. Smith was quite an interesting guy. But you are quite correct about the surprise ending... I was bowled over... both by the surprise... and how excellent it was. I hope you guys stayed in touch.

    Thank you so much for getting the right file up online. I'd hate to think I could have missed this.

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  2. Hi - I've only recently discovered your blog, but am finding it fascinating. The Bessie Smith items are especially interesting. I read your book on her 30 years ago, and now have to read it again (I've still got it!), but I can see how some of the material might not have found its way into print - especially some of the Ruby tapes! Anyway, I thought I'd let you know that I appreciate your efforts. Thanks you!

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  3. Hello Chris, below a few youtube links from Cécile McLorin Salvant, First Prize Winner of the Thelonious Monk Vocal Jazz Competition, doing a Tribute to Bessie Smith at the Whitley Bay Jazz Festival in July 2010.
    Haunted House Blues : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIJ9cvM6a3k

    Take It Right Back : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbPDIgpHfU0&feature=related

    Do Your Duty : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYuWnxvzItY

    Also a link to the clip of her rendition of "Take it Richt Back" at the T. Monk Competition (minute 47:49)
    http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/9981005

    Thank you!

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  4. I am late coming here, but thanks for making this amazing recording available -- that truly is a surprise ending! It is quite a remarkable document revealing what ought to be remembered as heroic efforts to save a stranger -- despite her race and class. I am saddened to think Hammond either refused to acknowledge or never made himself aware of the truth. I can't help but think that the real story could have served to awaken people to the humanity that precedes political difference, rather than perpetuate the misunderstandings and distrust that clearly stemmed from the myth.

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  5. I find myself wondering if he ever sent that second tape. fascinating!

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  6. Hi! I'm just fascinated by your articles of Bessie Smith. Would you please tell me songs by her with gospel influences? I know she only made a couple of songs on that genre("Moan you moaners" and "On revival day"). Do you know any song more like these? Thanx from Spain :D

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  7. Those two 1930 sides are the only recordings Bessie made that directly reference religion. Frank Walker, her producer at Columbia, was experimenting to give seriously sagging sales a new life. First he had her move slightly beyond double-entendres to more explicit material like "I'm Wild About That Thing" and "You've Got To Give Me Some," and when that didn't work, he brought in the Bessemer Singers and had Bessie make a u-turn. That didn't do it, either. Bessie later came up with her own remedy, a move into the Swing Era, but she died before that intriguing shift could be recorded. That said, I think a bit of church comes through on many of her preserved performances.

    Thank you for visiting and posting.

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    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  8. Hi! I just listened to the interview and am now reading "Bessie". I am curious to find out more about Dr. Smith. Is he still living?

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  9. No, I'm afraid Dr. Smith is long gone, as is the case with almost everyone I interviewed for the book. It just goes to show how important it is to talk to as many pertinent people as possible, and to do that as soon as possible. My book should have been written 20 or 30 years earlier. Better late than never, I guess.

    Thanks for your comment. I hope you enjoy Bessie, and that it is the 2003 expanded version you have.

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  10. Hi! I'm from Spain and I'm thinking of buying your book "Bessie". Is the book also available on a version translated in spanish?
    I have another question. Do you think there's still some unreleased material from Bessie, like new songs, or even videos that had never seen the light?
    Thanks for all!
    Marcos.

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  11. Hi Marcos, thank you for paying my blog a visit. No, I'm afraid Bessie (the book) has not been translated into Spanish. As for unreleased material, I believe that all the alternate takes have now been issued in the complete set on the Frog label. I avoided including them when I produced the Columbia LP set, because they are almost identical to the issued masters, so—not being an obsessed completist—I thought they would only get in the way. As for "videos," there is only the 1929 film, which I think you can find on YouTube. The soundtrack is on Columbia's CD Bessie set.

    Hope you come back and check out the Ruby Walker Smith interviews—there are more of those to come.

    Chris

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  12. Dear Chris,
    First, congratulations on your Bessie book's induction into the Blues Hall of Fame. I was at the ceremony in Memphis and heard Bob Porter convey your comments.
    I have a few items on Bessie from Mississippi that might be of interest to you, knowing that the research never ends! How should I send them to you -- what's your e-mail address? (You can reply to me at bluesoterica@aol.com.)

    Best wishes,
    Jim O'Neal

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    1. Thank you, Jim. Sorry for this much delayed reaction to your comment. Will send an e-mail.

      Chris

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  13. Lovely interview!!! very refreshing to listen to him talk.

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  14. Your accounts remind me of my interview I had with Roy Bryant, one of men who were responsible for the killing of Emmitt Till while working on a research paper for college. I didn't realize the importance of what i had till 16 years later. He died two weeks after the interview. Thanks for the details of this subject because I was always fasinated by this story because it happened less than 40miles from where I reside. Again thank you and I will continue to research your blog.

    Michael

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  15. Did Dr. Smith send a second tape?

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    1. No second tape, I'm afraid. I recall that we agreed everything had been covered. I did ask him some follow-up questions on the phone, but that was it. Remember, this was never meant for release in audio form. I would undoubtedly have considered that possibility, if the blogging option had existed back then. We didn't even have home computers, so I spent my time two-finger typing on the old IBM Selectric—a great typewriter.

      Thanks for the question, and for visiting my blog.

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  16. Chris,
    Is their any new material to possibly debunk the myth revolving around the death of Bessie Smith? I need to get in contact with you as soon as possible.

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    1. The myth has been debunked, so there is no reason to look for further proof of that. If you read my book, I think you will understand why that case is closed (except, perhaps, in Edward Albee's mind :))

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    2. Hello Mr. Chris Alberston,

      My name is Jennifer and Bessie Smith is my cousin on my grandmother side. I would like to talk to you in person and get the story on her. I want to know who my cousin was since you had the honor of meeting her. How can I get in touch with you?

      Thanks,

      Jennifer Smith

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    3. Dear Jennifer,
      I was not quite six years of age when Bessie passed away, so I never had the honor of being in her presence. If you read my book (the revised and expanded edition), you will know as much as I do. Thank you for visiting my blog.

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  17. So you would be against writing a thesis detailing Bessie Smith's life and death? Thanks for your input. Do you still have my contact information?
    Michael

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    1. Michael,

      Having already written a lengthy book that details Bessie's life and death, I am not sure what it is you are suggesting I do. Covering the same subject in a thesis would, I believe, be redundant.

      If you gave me your contact info, I'm sure it's on one of my hard drives— I would have to search for it.

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  18. Is Bessie's Adopted son, Jack Gee Jr. Still living? or will that info be in your book. I always wondered what happened to him and Richard Morgan after Bessie's death.

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    1. That information is in my book, the 2003 edition.

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  19. Chris,
    In regards to a thesis proposal, what area can you cover that is both feasible based on primary and secondary sources, as well as one that makes some original scholarly contributions. In essence, what should be a original thesis to properly address Bessie Smith?

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    1. I devoted several decades to my research on Bessie and what isn't covered in the original 1972 edition made it into my extended 2003 edition. I can't imagine what you want me to tell you beyond that. I get the impression that you haven't read the book, but you really should do so before asking me questions.

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    2. I got the book on my nook application and loved it! I really enjoyed it! One thing I liked about Bessie is that she was always herself. The book was interesting, sad and had some funny moments. Good work, Chris! Thank you for getting us very close to knowing this amazing woman. I'm 26 years old and could relate to Bessie alot through her music, even though its not my generation.

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    3. Thank you for the kind words, I think your's is the first response I have had from someone who read the book in its digital form. That's great, and something I never imagined when I spent nights and days at my typewriter! I should add that it was an electric one and I wrote the revised edition on my Mac. I still wonder how authors managed to write volumes with a pen, or quill!

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  20. Since I got fibre optic broadband and a new Mac, I can enjoy this FABULOUS blog to an even greater extent than before! Thanks so much for making all this material available.

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    1. Thank you for the compliment, Clive, and congratulations on the new Mac, a great computer. —Chris

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