by Len Lear
On May 16 my wife and I watched the HBO movie, “Bessie,” starring Queen Latifah playing the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937), who was born in Tennessee but lived most of her adult life as a South Philadelphia resident. Queen Latifah told the press that she had been working on the project for 20 years.
When Bessie died in a Mississippi car accident in 1937 at the age of 43, she had already established her legacy as “Empress of the Blues,” a pioneering American performer who demanded respect and equal pay in a world dominated by men and controlled by whites. She had also achieved a degree of infamy for her boozing, fighting and sexual appetites with both men and women.
Bessie made very little money as a recording star, even though she sold more records than any other female singer in the 1920s. That’s because she was ripped off by Columbia Records, as so many other young recording stars have been by the recording industry for almost a century (more on that later), but Bessie did make a lot of money as a charismatic stage performer. One of her biggest hits was “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” whose lyrics eerily paralleled her own life.
Nevertheless, when Bessie died, so many vultures carved up her estate that there was not even enough money left to pay for a headstone. So Bessie was buried in an unmarked grave at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Delaware County.
Jack Gee (1889-1973), Bessie’s extremely violent husband from whom she had been separated, thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone, once or twice even pocketing money raised for that purpose, according to researchers of Bessie. The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970, when a new tombstone was placed there, paid for by rock singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith. (Janis died the following year of a drug overdose.)
Controversy always swirled around Bessie, even in death. Shortly after she died, a front page story in the New York Times said that an ambulance driver rushed Bessie’s severely injured body to the nearest hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi, but that the hospital refused to admit her because it was a whites-only hospital. Many newspaper editorials around the country denounced this apparent case of blatant racism, suggesting that her life might have been saved if the whites-only hospital had treated her.
Four decades later, however, Bessie’s biographer Chris Albertson, debunked the “racism” claim. In the mid-1970s I interviewed Albertson, who talked to many people who had been at the 1937 accident scene and concluded that Bessie was in fact rushed to the closest hospital to the accident, which happened to be a black hospital, but that Bessie had lost too much blood to be saved with 1930s medical care.
Bessie never had any biological children, but in the Queen Latifah movie we see her (informally) adopted son, Jack Gee, Jr. (1919-1995), who had been born to the niece of one of Smith’s chorus girls, Margaret Warren. Smith adopted the boy in 1925 and spoiled him, but because of her constant touring, Smith was unable to take care of the boy as she wanted to.
In the mid-1970s I spent lots of time with Jack Gee, Jr., then in his mid-50s and working as a security guard (and later a bartender) in West Philly. My reason for interviewing was that Jack had brought a lawsuit in federal court against Columbia Records for allegedly taking a huge amount of money that rightfully belonged to Bessie and, therefore, to her adopted son.
His claim was that Columbia Records had taken advantage of Bessie, who was nearly illiterate in the early 1920s (she had little or no schooling), by providing her with a lawyer who was actually a Columbia Records employee.
She signed a contract (with an “X,” according to Jack, Jr.) in the early 1920s which obliged the record company to pay Bessie the laughable sum of $125 for each side of each record she would make and never a penny more, even though she wound up selling millions of records. Jack eventually lost the case in federal court, although the judge seemed to sympathize with him.
“My father was not very nice to me,” Jack Gee, Jr., told me. “Sometimes he would lock me in the basement (on the 1600 block of Christian Street) and not feed me, but my mother always brought me lot of gifts when she came home from a tour, although she would not usually stay home for long.
“In 1929 she was so happy because she had just been in a movie, ‘St. Louis Blues’ and then starred in a Broadway show called ‘Pansy,’ so she took me to Market Street to one department store after another, and she just kept buying things for me. She wanted me to be a lawyer, but there were very few Negro lawyers back then, and I was not very good in school. I guess I took after my mom in that regard.
“One thing I really did admire about my mom is that she would not put up with anything from anybody, which was very unusual for a Negro in the 1920s and ’30s. I remember one time about 1935 we were walking on North Broad Street, and we passed a Cadillac dealership, and mom saw a convertible in the window that she wanted to buy.
“So we went in, and she said she wanted to buy the car in the window. The salesman laughed at her and said there was no way on earth a Negro woman could afford it. This made her so angry, so we went to her bank, and she took out $10,000 in cash, which was also the price of a nice house at the time. We got on the subway and went back to the dealership, and she threw the money in the salesman’s face and told him to go f— himself. Then we drove away in the car!”