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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bessie Smith

When Bessie Smith was orphaned at the age of nine in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the early 1900's, she and her seven brothers and sisters had to figure out how to survive. So Bessie started singing on street corners for pennies. She already had something that drew a crowd and by the time she was grown, she was one of the most popular singers in the United States, having helped to turn the blues into the rage of the roaring twenties. The southern U.S. was racially segregated at the time, but Whites and Blacks alike made her recording of St. Louis Blues with Louis Armstrong one of the biggest hits of its time and one that has remained famous.

Singing songs with titles like "I'm Wild About That Thing," however, wasn't all that Smith was known for. She was a hard drinker and given to violence when she'd been hitting the bottle. She once beat a rival unconscious, ran one of her husbands down a train track by shooting at him repeatedly with his own gun, and, on another occasion, horrified a wealthy White audience at a small private house party by belligerently telling her host to "get the fuck away from me."

Further, just to spice things up, she made no bones about being bi-sexual, liked going to live sex shows and orgies, regularly seduced her women back-up singers, and encouraged drag queens to follow her around on tour. Consequently, despite her giant talent and profit-generating popularity, she was on the downward slide by the early 1930's, partly because the listening public was shifting from the blues to swing, but partly because many producers and musicians had come to feel that Smith was just more trouble than she was worth.

Still, there were those who loved Smith's in-your-faceness. After her untimely death as the result of a car wreck in the middle of the night returning from a gig in Mississippi, for example, one of Smith's nieces recalled, "When she said 'kiss my Black ass,' I don't think no one could say it nastier than Bessie." And it was this agonizing, raw and brassy, full-tilt boogie attitude that made another in-your-face woman -- blues singer Janis Joplin -- buy Smith a tombstone when she discovered that her predecessor was resting in an unmarked grave. In-your-face women recognize each other and show due respect.

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