Bessie Smith Records “Downhearted Blues”

The results of a modest recording session in 1923 helped make Bessie Smith the most celebrated blues singer in history.

Summary of Event

Long before her first recording session in 1923, Bessie Smith had sung for audiences in cities throughout the American Southeast and Midwest. She began to sing publicly in 1903, when, at age nine, she stood on street corners in her hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and shouted out Baptist hymns she learned from her father, a part-time preacher. In 1912, she joined a traveling vaudeville show, where she met Ma Rainey, a singer whose powerful, lusty voice influenced the style of singing Smith eventually followed. Moving from city to city appealed to Smith, because Chattanooga had become for her a virtual prison of poverty. She suffered indignities as part of the traveling show, however: She was considered too fat, too tall, and too black for featured roles. Smith greatly resented the preferential treatment that light-skinned black female performers received, but she channeled her hostility toward a positive goal—she was determined to succeed. Music;blues
Blues music
Musical recordings;Bessie Smith[Smith, Bessie]
[kw]Bessie Smith Records “Downhearted Blues” (Feb. 15, 1923)
[kw]Smith Records “Downhearted Blues,” Bessie (Feb. 15, 1923)
[kw]”Downhearted Blues,” Bessie Smith Records (Feb. 15, 1923)[Downhearted Blues, Bessie Smith Records (Feb. 15, 1923)]
[kw]Blues,” Bessie Smith Records “Downhearted (Feb. 15, 1923)[Blues, Bessie Smith Records Downhearted (Feb. 15, 1923)]
Blues music
Musical recordings;Bessie Smith[Smith, Bessie]
[g]United States;Feb. 15, 1923: Bessie Smith Records “Downhearted Blues”[05770]
[c]Music;Feb. 15, 1923: Bessie Smith Records “Downhearted Blues”[05770]
Smith, Bessie
Smith, Mamie
Rainey, Ma
Williams, Clarence

Bessie Smith.

(Library of Congress)

By 1921, Smith had her own show, and black audiences considered her a star. She had an arresting presence on stage that some likened to that of an evangelist, and the way she delivered her songs reflected her innermost hurts. She sang the blues as no one had heard them sung before. Smith’s rise to prominence coincided with growing recognition by recording companies that there was a market for black music. The OKeh Record Company OKeh Record Company first recorded a black singer, Mamie Smith, in 1920. Her recording of “Crazy Blues” sold enough copies to convince executives that there was a future for the blues on records. Ma Rainey recorded more than ninety songs in the early 1920’s.

Bessie Smith had two auditions with OKeh, but she was turned down each time because her voice was judged too rough to have general appeal. Black Swan Records, founded by blues composer W. C. Handy, also turned her down, choosing instead to promote the less strident singing of Ethel Waters, Waters, Ethel Smith’s principal competitor in the 1920’s. Smith’s chance finally came when Frank Walker, a producer of “race records” for Columbia Records, Columbia Records decided to give her an opportunity. Walker dispatched pianist Clarence Williams to Philadelphia to bring Smith to New York City for a recording session that began on February 15, 1923.

It took two days, under the patient guidance of Williams, for the nervous Smith to record “Downhearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues.” Whatever doubts there were about Smith’s rough manner, her voice and phrasing proved to be explosive on record. “Downhearted Blues” sold more than 750,000 copies. After that modest recording session in 1923, Bessie Smith quickly became known as the “Empress of the Blues.” By 1924, her record sales passed the two million mark, and she made featured appearances on Milton Stan’s black vaudeville circuit.

In January, 1925, Smith made what some critics believe to be her best recordings when she teamed for one memorable session with Louis Armstrong, Armstrong, Louis who was then a member of Fletcher “Smack” Henderson’s orchestra. Smith was reluctant to record with Armstrong, but her favorite accompanist, cornetist Joe Smith, was not in New York at the time. As it happened, Smith and Armstrong had an instant rapport, and from this session came the version of “St. Louis Blues” that became the standard. In that song and others that she recorded with Armstrong, Smith diverged markedly from a literal reading of the lyrics and, in so doing, created something new and exciting.

As her singing career continued to gain momentum in the second half of the 1920’s, however, Smith’s personal life collapsed. Wrangling over the distribution of her royalties as well as her excessive drinking, boorish behavior at parties and social gatherings, and unhappy marriage to a Philadelphia policeman brought her considerable public disfavor and misery. While she was blossoming as a professional, such problems remained of secondary importance, but when her career started to slide after 1929, they became open wounds.

The beginning of the end for Smith came from a combination of factors, some of which were out of her control. A failed Broadway show left her depressed, and her appearance in the 1929 film St. Louis Blues, St. Louis Blues (film)[Saint Louis Blues] in which she sang the title song, made it clear that she had little acting talent. In 1929, the sale of blues records declined, and promoters demanded that Smith and other black stars fill their music with double entendres. With the United States in the midst of the Great Depression, such efforts did not help sales very much. Also working against Smith in the early 1930’s were the expansion of radio and the development of new recording technology. She had difficulty adapting to the new technology, which demanded a softer, more intimate sound to appeal to nationwide audiences listening in their living rooms. The new technology tended to favor the styles of singing displayed by performers such as Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong.

Smith’s last great recording session was in 1929, when she recorded “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” To each of these songs, Smith imparted an air of hovering tragedy, a reflection of the circumstances in her life at the time. These recordings reveal her to be as much a jazz singer as a blues singer. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” became the song with which Smith would be most associated over the years, even more than “St. Louis Blues.”

Smith’s career went steadily downhill in the 1930’s. She no longer received top dollar for appearances, and her recordings did not sell particularly well. Although her voice remained powerful, numerous comeback efforts between 1933 and 1937 failed. She died in an automobile accident near Clarksdale, Mississippi, while traveling to a singing engagement on September 26, 1937. Stories at the time said she might have lived if she had been admitted to a white hospital that turned her away, but such stories were not accurate.


More than any other black artist, Bessie Smith opened the door for black musicians to the commercial market. She sang “country blues,” as opposed to the “urban blues” of Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith. She sang with a passion, pain, and verve that rang true to black listeners throughout the United States. Her audience appreciated her complete defiance of the white world; she refused to yield to white conventions in her music or in her personal life. In her singing, she refused to surrender blandly to lyrics or melody; therefore, her songs usually bore her personal stamp. This was an attribute that not only endeared her to her faithful followers but also left its mark on other entertainers.

British jazz musician and critic Humphrey Lyttelton has argued that Smith was one of only three 1920’s musicians (Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet were the other two) who had the talent and confidence to change the “rhythmic conventions of the day.” Smith was able to move away from the legacy of ragtime rhythm by adjusting lyrics (dropping or adding words and syllables) to suit her personal interpretation of a song. Many artists of the 1930’s, including some of the highly popular “crooners” of the time, were much influenced by Smith’s molding of lyrics to give proper emphasis to a phrase. Armstrong’s recording session with Smith in 1925 no doubt also encouraged his departure from standard phrasing.

It is difficult to gauge Smith’s influence on other artists in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. She was not forgotten, but the recorded music of the war and postwar eras was scarcely of the same brilliance as that of the 1920’s. In the late 1950’s, however, the mix of blues and gospel music began to inspire a new era for black artists. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, while rejecting Bessie Smith’s rather seamy way of life, essentially emulated her stage presence and style of singing to gain considerable popularity.

In addition to Jackson, Dinah Washington Washington, Dinah and Linda Hopkins Hopkins, Linda were the 1950’s singers most obviously in the Bessie Smith mold. Washington studied Smith closely. In many ways, Washington’s life, with its evangelical roots, poverty, and sorrowful personal problems, paralleled Smith’s. Washington, like Smith, had begun by singing hymns; also like Smith, she developed a powerful, expressive, pain-ridden style marked by immaculate phrasing and diction. To hear Washington’s version of “This Bitter Earth” is to experience the same emotional reaction evoked by Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” It was appropriate that Washington recorded an album titled Dinah Washington Sings Bessie Smith shortly before her death in 1963.

Linda Hopkins proved to be the most thorough student of Bessie Smith’s life and the most exacting emulator of her style. In 1936, when Hopkins was only eleven years old, she heard Smith sing in New Orleans; the experience left an indelible impression. One year later, Mahalia Jackson “discovered” Hopkins, and her career as a blues singer ascended. In 1959, Hopkins began to portray Bessie Smith in her performances, and in 1974 she developed a one-woman show in which she played Smith. That show became the musical Bessie and Me in 1976. More than fifty years after Smith’s first recording session in 1923, Hopkins had revived a great interest in Smith’s life.

In the 1970’s, rhythm-and-blues star Aretha Franklin built substantially on the foundation laid by Bessie Smith. To a great extent, Franklin learned of Smith through Hopkins. By helping to introduce the world to modern soul music, Franklin became the most influential female singer since Smith’s era of the 1920’s.

Bessie Smith’s black successors enjoyed something that she never experienced—enthusiastic approval and acceptance from white audiences. Ironically, Smith’s own recordings, rereleased in 1958 and then reissued in their entirety by Columbia Records in 1970, gained wide popularity and sold more than half a million copies. It is no exaggeration to say that the music of Smith and her later counterparts communicated to white listeners the fact that the black experience in the United States was not adequately expressed by the lighthearted sounds of much popular black music. Music;blues
Blues music
Musical recordings;Bessie Smith[Smith, Bessie]

Further Reading

  • Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A solid biography with, perhaps, a little too much emphasis on the rough side of Smith’s life. A good portion of the book is based on interviews with Smith’s niece, Ruby Walker. Includes many photographs, discography, and index.
  • Feinstein, Elaine. Bessie Smith. New York: Viking Press, 1985. Brief and highly impressionistic look at Smith’s life includes little about her music but does carefully analyze the controversial events surrounding her death. Suitable for readers seeking an introduction to Smith’s life. Features photographs, select discography, brief bibliography, and index.
  • Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America. 1963. Reprint. New York: William Morrow, 1999. Interesting volume discusses how blues and jazz evolved in white America. Filled with insights about how blacks survived and how their music flourished in difficult circumstances. Places Bessie Smith’s work in historical context. Includes index.
  • Lyttelton, Humphrey. The Best of Jazz: Basin Street to Harlem. New York: Taplinger, 1978. Outstanding collection of essays on the great names in jazz from the 1920’s and 1930’s by a well-known British jazz musician and critic. Includes an essential essay on Smith. Features select bibliography, discography, and index.
  • Priestley, Brian. Jazz on Record: A History. London: Elm Tree Books, 1988. Impressive history of jazz recordings from the 1920’s to the 1980’s contains much of interest regarding Bessie Smith. Features a record guide, photographs, brief bibliography, and index.
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Excellent scholarly account of the subject provides both background and important detail. Includes a splendid critical bibliography and discography as well as numerous selections from scores and an extensive index.
  • Wardlow, Gayle Dean. Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 1998. Describes the author’s search for early recordings and documentation of the stories and songs of blues artists (many of which appear on an accompanying CD). Focuses on Delta blues singers of the early twentieth century.

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