'Hold me close, under the sunset and let Gods reds and oranges soothe your eyes, like this is all a dream.'

Bessie smith with louis armstrong - jazz gallery

Throughout the 1920s, she recorded with many of the era’s finest jazz musicians, including Fletcher Henderson and members of his band, and the the pianist James P. Johnson, with whom she cut her masterpiece Backwater Blues. She was brilliant at playing off the sounds of her instrumental accompanists, notably Henderson’s trombonist Charlie Green (immortalised in the song title Trombone Cholly). We can get an impression of how Bessie must have appeared on stage from her performance in the short film St Louis Blues, made in 1929. Although several runs through this song occur in what is otherwise a simple drama, the centrepiece of the film is a fine performance of it by Bessie, giving some idea of the towering figure she must have cut behind the footlights of 1920s theatres.

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.

Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong - Jazz GalleryBessie Smith with Louis Armstrong - Jazz GalleryBessie Smith with Louis Armstrong - Jazz GalleryBessie Smith with Louis Armstrong - Jazz Gallery