Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues.
On September 26, 1937 Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, was critically injured in an auto accident on a dark highway between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi. She died of her injuries hours later at a segregated hospital in Clarksdale for Blacks only.
Most people take as gospel the story that she died because she was refused admission to a hospital for Whites only. But it turns out not to be true, at least in the form that has assumed the status of legend.
The story seems to have originated with John Hammond, the legendary record producer, critic, and talent scout who was instrumental in promoting careers of luminaries from Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday, through Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan to Lenard Cohn, and Bruce Springsteen. Hammond’s career was undoubtedly impressive, in no small measure because Hammond promoted himself as diligently as he did his protégés. In doing so absolute truth was sometimes a casualty.Record producer John Hammond with one of his later protegees Aretha Fraaklin whose style owed a debt to Bessie Smith as well as her gospel music background,
Hammond had recorded Bessie’s last secessions in 1933 for Columbia Records’ Okeh label. At this point Smith’s career was struggling. The Depression and the explosion of radio had nearly wiped out record sales. Despite recording hit after hit in the ‘20’s for Columbia’s A label, her contract had lapsed and she had not recorded in some years. The dawning of the Swing Era also signaled a shift in public taste in both the Black and White communities away from her raw barrel house style to a jazzier sound. Talking pictures were also killing vaudeville, where Smith had made a good living appearing with an elaborate act.
Smith was always shrewd about her business. She insisted that instead of a stripped down Blues combo, a small jazz band back her on these sessions. In the band were notables trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, and tenor saxophonist Chu Berry. Benny Goodman even sat it for at least one number. It was a more contemporary sound for Smith. The records were a moderate success, but did not match the sales for classic blues from the ‘20’s.
Hammond, who was a traditionalist and had hoped to capture that earlier sound, was disappointed and did not sign Smith for more sessions. She never recorded again.
After Smith died Hammond wrote about her. He claimed that he had rescued her from obscurity and life as a hostess in a speakeasy. Not true. Smith was still touring at the time and still had a dedicated audience, particularly in the South. As the Depression deepened and venues closed, Smith later was forced to take work as a hostess, but that was not until the months before she died. And then she abandoned that after a short while when new opportunities to play the Southern circuit arose. In fact Hammond had not seen Smith since the 1933 sessions.
Whether because he was confused about accounts of the accident or just to embellish a good story, Hammond wrote in a 1937 article in Downbeat magazine that an ambulance had delivered Smith to the White hospital only to be turned away.Edward Albee's short play, based on Hammond's account, often was mounted in tandem with The American Dream or The Sandbox.
Soon the story became part of music legend and culture. In 1959 Edward Albee made it the basis of his play The Death of Bessie Smith.
Here is what really happened.
Shortly after midnight Smith was in the front passenger seat and her longtime lover/partner Richard Morgan was driving her Packard. Morgan evidently drowsed and woke up to find himself in the wrong lane with a car approaching. He tried to steer left, but the car sideswiped the Packard, nearly severing the arm that Smith had resting in the window.
Shortly afterwards a Memphis surgeon Dr. Hugh Smith and his fishing buddy came upon the accident and offered assistance. He found Smith lying in the road semi-conscious. She had a minor wound to her head, but was bleeding badly from the nearly severed arm. He worked on stopping the blood flow with his handkerchief. He later said that neither apparent wound would have been fatal, but that Smith had probably suffered massive internal injuries and bleeding from the collision. Meanwhile Dr. Smith’s friend went to a nearby house and phoned for an ambulance.
After more than half an hour, as Bessie slipped into shock and the ambulance had still not arrived Dr. Smith decided to try to take her to the hospital in his own car. As he was clearing the back seat, another car approached at high speed. Dr. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the car plowed into his car, caromed into the Packard, and narrowly missed Bessie still lying on the shoulder of the road.
A passing motorist, seeing this accident but not the first, called for another ambulance. Two ambulances—one from the Black hospital called by Dr. Smith, and one from the White hospital called by the passing motorist—responded to the scene. The Black ambulance took Bessie and the White ambulance took the two lightly injured occupants of the second car. There was no thought of delivering Bessie to a White hospital. Not in the South. Not in Mississippi. Certainly not in 1937.Bessie Smith's Packard, left, and the second car to hit it while she lay injured in the road.
Bessie was taken to Clarksdale’s Afro-American Hospital. It is undoubtedly true that the two facilities were not “separate but equal.” Black hospitals struggled and often did not have the most up-to-date equipment. It might be possible that Bessie could have gotten better care in a White hospital. And in that sense she was certainly the victim of racism and segregation.
But as Dr. Smith observed, she was bleeding internally. Given the state of medicine at the time, it is doubtful that even the most ultra-modern hospital staffed by the greatest surgeons could have saved her. Her Black doctors did everything they could. They amputated her arm, controlled the bleeding they could see, and made her as comfortable as possible. Still she was dead within hours.
Bessie’s body was taken to Philadelphia where she and Richard Morgan had made a home. As word spread through the Black community, the wake had to be moved from a small local funeral home to an Elks Lodge where more than 10,000 admirers came to pay their last respects and view the body. She was laid to rest in Mount Lawn Cemetery.More than 30 years after her death, Bessie Smith finally got a headstone courtesy of her admirer Janis Joplin.
Twice money was raised for a suitable monument for Bessie’s grave and twice her long estranged husband Jack Gee made off with the money. Her grave remained unmarked until 1970 when another blues singer Janis Joplin paid for a tombstone which was installed on August 7, just three months before Joplin’s own death.
The former Afro-American Hospital is now the Riverside Hotel. It has a marker honoring Smith’s death there and is a stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail.