The Most Popular Bessie Smith Songs

Already listed at the top of our list of the most famous Blues singers of all time, in this article we dive deeper into the most popular Bessie Smith songs.

Acquiring the nickname ‘Empress of the Blues’, Bessie Smith was the most well-known female blues singer of the 1930s with an influence that extended well beyond the style in which she was known.

In 1923 she signed with Columbia Records and began recording a string of hits, although there were no official music charts at this time.

Entered in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, she was, in her heyday, noted as the highest paid black entertainer of the day.

From the outset Bessie’s recordings were uncompromising, setting her out as a strong independent artist who demanded that working-class women be given respect without having to change their behaviour.

Born in April 1894, Smith’s parents died young and in order to survive Bessie and her siblings would earn money by busking on street corners. In 1912 she joined the Stokes troupe as a dancer and was undoubtably helped as a singer by Ma Rainey who was also touring with the troupe.

Bessie Smith’s first recording session for Columbia was on February 15, 1923, and her first 78rpm records released under the ‘race records’ series hit the shops in September of that year.

She recorded no fewer than 160 sides for Columbia, often with the leading jazz musicians of the day such as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Fletcher Henderson.

The great depression of 1929 hit the record industry hard, and Smith’s recording career seemed to be over. She continued to perform however, and in 1933 producer John Hammond asked the singer to record four sides for Columbia’s subsidiary label, Okeh Records. These would turn out to be her last recordings.

Just four years later, on 26th September 1937, Bessie Smith was killed in a car accident.

Her legacy lives on in the recordings and her message to working-class African-American women that they too had the right to drink, party and enjoy life away from the drudgery of working to earn a living.

Her social commentary was not always popular at the time, but is now looked upon as an early 20th century role model.

So keep reading for our pick of her most popular songs and performances…

Bessie Smith

Down Hearted Blues (1923)

Composed by Lovie Austin with lyrics by Alberta Hunter

Released as Bessie’s first single with ‘Gulf Coast Blues’ on the other side, this was a big hit for Smith reportedly selling 780,000 copies in the first six months.

Smith is accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams, whose playing is sparse allowing Smith’s vocal to take centre stage.

The lyrics by Alberta Hunter take on the traditional blues form and recounts the story of ill-fated and unrequited love.

Other popular versions:

Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake (1923) Cab Calloway & His Orchestra (1932) Ella Fitzgerald (1964)

Baby Won’t You Please Come Home (1923)

Composed by Charles Warfield and Clarence Williams

Another big hit from 1923 and accompanied again by pianist Clarence Williams who also takes co-composer credits, a fact that was greatly disputed by Charles Warfield

The lyrics tell of a woman whose man has left her, and she wants him back because she is lost and lonely without him.

The emphasis and meaning of the song changes abruptly when the woman realises, she also needs her man back for his money as she is unable to pay the rent withut him.

Other popular versions:

Clarence Williams’ Blue Five (1927) Sidney Bechet & His Feetwarmers (1949) Ray Charles (1952) Jack Teagarden (1954) Frank Sinatra (1957) Billie Holiday (1959) Ella Fitzgerald (1961) Sam Cooke (1962) Sarah Vaughan (1962) Dinah Washington (1962) Miles Davis (1963)

Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do (1923)

Composed by Everett Robbins and Porter Grainger

Another early classic from Bessie, again accompanied by Clarence Williams. A melancholy blues the lyrics tell how restrictions were imposed on black women of the time.

The song was considered controversial at the time for imparting the message that African American women were responsible for their own actions and should not be constrained by stereotypes.

The song has also commonly been recorded by others under the title ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’.

Other popular recordings:

B.B. King (1967) Otis Spann (1969) Eric Clapton Taj Mahal (1976)

St. Louis Blues (1925)

Composed by W.C. Handy

This is undoubtably one of Smith’s most endearing and heart-breaking songs. From love to hatred the lyrics tell of a woman who left for another by her man, and the sense of love and loss that gradually turns to a feeling of betrayal.

The song is further enhanced by Bessie’s use of her lower register and the superb by Louis Armstrong on cornet, who is simply majestic, and Frank Longshaw on the seldom heard pump organ.

Other popular recordings:

Original Dixieland Jass Band (1921) W. C. Handy (1923) Fats Waller (1926) Benny Goodman (1936) Django Reinhardt (1937) Guy Lombardo (1939) Earl Hines (1940) Dizzy Gillespie (1949)

Carless Love Blues (1925)

Traditional arranged by W.C. Handy

Another classic Smith performance with a band that once again had featured the young Louise Armstrong.

The trumpeter was at the peak of his powers and turning the art of the jazz soloist on its head, but this does not phase Smith and she gives a performance to rival that of Armstrong’s.

The song’s subject matter is that of being let down by the one you love and is identifiable to anyone who has felt that they have been with the wrong partner.

The message is delivered loud and clear, and on songs such as this Louis and Bessie are a match made in heaven.

Other popular versions:

Billie Holiday (1941) Sidney Bechet’s Jazz Ltd. Orchestra (1949) Fats Domino (1951) Jimmy Rushing with Buck Clayton and His Orchestra (1957) Joan Baez and Bill Wood (1959) Ray Charles (1962) Helen Merrill (1965)

A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1927)

Composed by Eddie Green

A tale of advice from woman to others about how to keep their men from straying by appreciating them and showing some affection.

The emphasis is firmly placed on how difficult it is to find a good man and the importance of not losing them. Bessie is at her best on this track and her vocal is full and strong.

The backing from pianist Porter Grainger and Lincoln M. Conaway on guitar is minimal but absolutely right for Bessie and the song.

Other popular versions:

Fats Waller (1939) Frank Sinatra and Shelley Winters (1952) Nancy Wilson (1962) Alberta Hunter (1980)

After You’ve Gone (1927)

Composed by Turner Layton and Henry Creamer

Another side from Bessie cut with the quintet heard on ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ but with Buster Bailey replacing Hawkins on clarinet.

The band obviously has a clear idea of what is required of them, and while they play well enough it is the vocalist that grabs the attention.

Smith’s voice rings out loud and proud, and her enunciation and intonation are spot on as well as being peppered with the timbre and nuances that are unmistakably Bessie Smith.

Other popular versions:

Ruth Etting (1927) Louis Armstrong (1929) Duke Ellington (1933) Coleman Hawkins (1935) Lionel Hampton (1937) Sidney Bechet (1943) Charlie Parker (1944) Johnny Hartman (1959) Judy Garland (1961) Peggy Lee (1964) Nina Simone (1974) Frank Sinatra (1984) Phil Collins (1996)

Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1927)

Composed by Irving Berlin

A composition credited to Irving Berlin, but a claim that has been disputed and that the music was composed by ragtime pianist and composer Scott Joplin. A dispute that rumbled on for decades and will probably never be resolved.

This is a glorious tune with a quintet featuring Joe Smith on cornet, trombonist Jimmy Harrison, Coleman Hawkins playing clarinet, Fletcher Henderson on piano and banjoist, Charles Dixon.

Bessie is superb on this tune and the improved recording quality of the time captures the music far better than the recordings made just a few years earlier.

Other popular versions:

The Boswell Sisters (1935) Benny Goodman & His Orchestra (1936) Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra (1937) Ella Fitzgerald (1958) Ray Charles (1959) King Curtis (1962) Julie London (1967)

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out (1929)

Composed by Jimmie Cox

Written in 1923 by Jimmie Cox and recorded by Bessie Smith in 1929 in perhaps its definitive version by the blues singer. So much so, that no one else recorded the song for a generation.

The lyrics tell of if the fall from making one’s fortune during the prohibition only to lose it afterwards, and how friends seemingly disappear along with the wealth.

Other popular recordings:

Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five (1954) Nina Simone (1960) Sam Cooke (1961) Jimmy Witherspoon (1962) Otis Redding (1966) Derek & The Dominioes (featuring Eric Clapton) (1970)

I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl (1931)

Composed by Clarence Williams, J. Tim Brymn, and Dally Small

Bessie Smith’s final recording under contract for Columbia.

The song gained notoriety for its sexually suggestive lyrics that if were a little veiled in the opening verse were explicit in their meaning by the end of the song.

Once again accompanied by Clarence Williams at the piano, Bessie is in fine voice, but at this point in time her career had been damaged by both the great depression of 1929 and a general shift in the public’s taste in musical entertainment.

With her Columbia contract at an end, Smith would record four sides for Okeh Records as the request of producer John Hammond, and these would prove to be her final recordings. However, it is the Columbia recordings that Smith will best be remembered for.

Other popular versions:

Nina Simone (1962) George Melly & His Feetwarmers (1973) Diana Ross (live in 1977)

Thanks for reading! 

If you’re keen to dive into more Blues music, check out our expanded guide to the most famous blues musicians of all time

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