Legendary blues singer Bessie Smith is buried near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on October 4, 1937. Some 7,000 mourners attended her funeral. Smith had been killed a few days before when the old Packard she was driving hit a parked truck near Coahoma, Mississippi, between Clarksdale and Memphis. There is no record of Smith’s exact birth date, but she was about 43 years old.
Bessie Smith had been in show business since she was a teenager. In 1912, she joined a traveling vaudeville troupe, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and spent the next decade singing in minstrel shows and cabarets all around the South. (One popular rumor held that blues great Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the leader of the Foots, had kidnapped the talented young singer and dragged her from show to show against her will. This was not true–Rainey was Smith’s friend and mentor–but it made for great publicity.)
In 1923, Smith released her first record, “Down-Hearted Blues.” It sold nearly 800,000 copies and made her a superstar. In fact, by the end of the 1920s Smith had made more money than any black performer ever had. She performed and recorded with luminaries like Clarence Williams, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson’s band and she starred in the 1929 film “St. Louis Blues.” Unfortunately, in the 1930s Smith’s career stalled. The Depression, changing musical tastes that favored jazz and swing instead of vaudeville blues and the singer’s severe alcoholism made it nearly impossible for her to find work. Toward the end of the decade, though, Smith had begun to record and perform again.
The circumstances surrounding the singer’s death are mysterious. We know that Smith was gravely injured–her arm was nearly severed–in the accident. After that, some people say, the doctor at the scene ignored her while he tended to the bumps and scrapes of a white couple that was in a nearby fender-bender. Other sources say that Smith bled to death while her ambulance drove around in search of a hospital that would treat black patients. (Edward Albee based his 1959 play “The Death of Bessie Smith” on this version of events.) While neither one of these scenarios would have been much of a surprise in the Jim Crow South, most historians now agree that the stories are apocryphal: Smith did make it to the hospital, but her injuries were so severe that it made no difference.
In the summer of 1970, shortly before her own death from a heroin overdose, the young singer Janis Joplin had a headstone made for Smith’s unmarked grave. It reads, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”