Bessie Smith helped pioneer the genre of blues music and contributed to the success of American music and African Americans in the performing arts before she passed away in a fatal car crash near Clarksdale, Mississippi on September 26, 1937, at the age of 43. Since her death, Smith has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, winning posthumous awards for her 1923 single “Downhearted Blues,” 1925 single “St. Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong, and a 1928 single “Empty Bed Blues.”
She has also been honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.
Before her death, Smith clashed with another blues singer, Gertrude Saunders, twice. The second left Saunders beaten and bloody on a sidewalk and Smith charged with assault. Saunders, who is infamously known for her affair with Smith’s husband Jack Gee, was not only a singer but an actress and comedian who was active from the 1910s to the 1940s.
Born in Asheville, North Carolina, Saunders studied at Benedict College, Columbia before joining a vaudeville troupe based in Chicago, organized by Billy King. She became a featured singer and comedian and performed several hit songs including “Wait ‘Til the Cows Come Home”, “Hot Dog”, and “Rose of Washington Square”. She also starred in King’s 1919 stage production of “Over the Top” and appeared in several other shows, with her most successful shows being “Liza” and the 1921 Sissle and Blake hit, “Shuffle Along”.
Vaudeville promoters Hurtig and Seamon would later offer to increase her salary if she would star in a burlesque show. She left her role in “Shuffle Along” and accepted the offer but that hurt her career. Still, she continued to star in revues through the 1920s.
During this period, Smith was also making waves in the entertainment industry. The singer had given money to her husband, Gee, to produce a show for her. Gee reportedly threw together a cheap production for Smith and used the remainder of the money to set up a show for the woman he was then having an affair with — Saunders.
Saunders, apart from her success in the entertainment industry at the time, was also pretty, slim and a little younger than Smith. As one report put it: “She was the antithesis of Bessie Smith, their personalities and looks contrasted sharply: Gertrude’s complexion was light, her hair long and her character gentle.”
“The artistic gap that separated the two was equally wide, since Gertrude Saunders relied more on her looks than on her voice,” the report added.
After Saunders was featured in a revue promoted by Gee in 1929, Smith beat her up. The “Downhearted Blues” singer had then learned of her husband’s affair with her fellow singer and the fact that he had used her money to fund a show for her. Smith’s marriage to Gee ended. In a few months, Smith would record her hit, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. Its lyrics appear to mirror her life.
The following is an excerpt from the lyrics of the song:
Mmm, when you’re down and out
Mmm, not one penny
And my friends I haven’t any
Mmm, well I felt so low
Nobody wants me round their door
Mmm, without a doubt
No man can use you wen you down and out
I mean when you down and out