Linked by talent, and ultimately fate, Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin were the very definition of the blues.
For 33 long years, the final resting place of Bessie Smith, a.k.a. Empress of the Blues, was unmarked. In August 1970, Janis Joplin paid for a headstone to honor her idol. The headstone reads: “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.”
Two months later, Janis herself was dead.
Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin, the two greatest blues singers ever. Full stop.
Yes yes, it’s all so subjective. The phenomenal Billie Holiday, the infectious B.B. King, there are many outstanding blues singers; but for my money, no one can quite match the sheer, raw grittiness of Bessie and Janis.
Check out this clip from 1929. It’s quite possibly the first ever music video; it’s definitely Bessie Smith’s only film performance. The sound quality’s not great but you’ll see why Bessie and the blues go hand in hand.
And Janis Joplin? Her spellbinding rendition of the Gershwin classic “Summertime” masquerades as rock music, but it encapsulates everything you need to know about the blues. Janis’s voice is rough yet elegant, her phrasing spot on.
These troubled women from different eras, each of whom died before her allotted biblical three score years and ten, still grab us, still rivet us to our seats, while we sit hungry for more. Their rich earthy voices penetrate to the bone, to the very depths of our souls. Their songs often reek of anguish, of desperate need, but there’s also playfulness, humor and an element of giving the finger.
Both women exuded an animal magnetism, an overt sexuality. Bessie needed “sugar in her bowl” and Janis instructs her lover to “rock me all night long.” Janis sang about “One Night Stands” and Bessie about “My Kitchen Man.” I don’t know how that got through the censors back in 1929. Nearly 90 years after it was written, the blatantly sexually charged lyrics of “My Kitchen Man” run rings around the more in-your-face lyrics of modern songs.
Bessie Smith was born in 1894 to a poor family and was an orphan by the age of eight. As a teenager she worked with a traveling minstrel show and later with the famous Ma Rainey. It was an uncompromising life with long hours and pathetic pay, but she toughed it out, and when “race records” became popular, she was given a recording contract. “Down Hearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues” were recorded in 1923 and sold like hotcakes—about 800,000 copies within a few months. In 1923!
Bessie stood out because she had great phrasing, a spot-on sense of rhythm, fine diction, and a feel for the dramatic. She worked with the biggest names in jazz, among them Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, and Louis Armstrong.
“I ain’t never loved but three men in my life. My father, my brother, the man that wrecked my life.” Just the words to a song, but Bessie’s personal life had parallels to her songs. She had a fractious marriage to Jack Gee. Both Bessie and Jack had affairs with women, which led to some pretty intense arguments. Bessie once fired a gun at Jack, furious when he’s slept with one of her backing singers. Jack roughed Bessie up when he discovered she was having a fling with one of her singers. (Good thing he didn’t know about the others!) They separated in 1929.
Bessie Smith was one of the first African-American superstars, but the Great Depression beginning in 1929 had a massive impact on the recording industry and her star fell. She also had a drinking problem and in spite of the fact that she enjoyed commercial success and earned some big bucks for some years, she—like all black Americans—suffered appalling racism.
Reports say that she was critically injured in a car accident in 1937 and died of her injuries a few days later. She was 43 years old.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Know who you’re Googling: Thelonius Monk
- Know who you’re Googling: Ella Fitzgerald
- Know who you’re Googling: Bix Beiderbecke
- Know who you’re Googling: Charlie “Bird” Parker
- Know who you’re Googling: Billie Holiday
Janis Joplin was born in Texas in 1943. She discovered the blues in her teens, and in the early 1960s took herself off to San Francisco, the epicenter of a new counterculture, one that promoted free love and the use of psychedelic drugs. Embracing the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, she was sexually liberated and didn’t care who knew it. She also developed a heroin addiction.
In 1966, Janis joined Big Brother and the Holding Company, her distinctive husky vocal style and bohemian mode of dress attracting audiences in huge numbers. She left Big Brother not long after to form her own bands: the Kozmic Blues Band and later the Full Tilt Boogie Band. Janis could do hard rock and pop, oh yes indeed, but she shone when she sang the blues.
There’s a wildness in Janis, what with her powerful voice, her characteristic throaty laugh and her undisguised sexuality, but she was in reality a little shy and a lot insecure. A so-called ugly duckling, she never found true love; and until the end of her life she wanted her parents to approve of her career choice. She craved validation and maybe she never felt she received it from the people from whom she needed it most. It might explain the bourbon and the needle.
Janis Janis Janis, such a waste. Only 27 years old, she died of an accidental drug overdose in October 1970.
Inner strength and an “up yours” attitude gave both Bessie and Janis the wherewithal to fight for equality in a man’s world. Talent too, of course. Each of these women had a certain untamed quality to her voice; and their songs were imbued with passion and purity. And truth. Truth is such a critical element in their oeuvre.
Well after their deaths, both Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin were granted Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards; Bessie in 1989, Janis in 2005.
Listen to these two versions of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and be thankful for recording technology so we can listen to these giants of the blues whenever we want.