Bessie Smith (July 9, 1892 or April 15, 1894 - September 26, 1937)
"Bessie Smith smoked 'reefers' throughout her career, as did many others in the music industry," wrote Buzzy Jackson in A Bad Woman Feeling Good (2005, W.W. Norton & Co., New York). Jackson thinks "pig foot" in Smith's signature tune "Gimmie a Pigfoot" referred to a good-looking man or woman, but some think it may have meant marijuana. In any case, Smith sings "Gimmie a reefer" in the last verse of the song in this video.
Born to a large, poor family in Chatanooga, Tennessee, Bessie started performing for coins on street corners as a child. At 14, she joined a travelling minstrel show whose headliner, the great Ma Rainey, mentored Smith. Bessie was soon performing on stages all over the country as The Empress of the Blues, even while the depression and advent of "talkies" slowed her progress.
In 1933, John Hammond saw Smith perform in a small Philadelphia club and asked her to record four sides for the Okeh label, including "Gimmie a Pigfoot" featuring Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden. Smith's broader audience also loved her ribald, earthly style. "[S]he was more than merely famous, she was a living symbol of personal freedom: she did what she liked; she spoke her mind, no matter how outrageous her opinion; she flouted bourgeois norms and engaged in alcohol, drugs, and recreational sex." (Jackson)
On September 26, 1937 Smith was in a traffic accident on US Highway 61 and died from her injuries. Her funeral was held in Philadelphia on October 4, 1937 and was attended by about seven thousand people, according to contemporary newspaper reports.
In 1989, Smith was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The U.S. Government issued a Bessie Smith postage stamp in 1994. The Chattanooga African-American Museum (CAAM) named its performance hall after Bessie Smith.