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The Empress of Blues, South of Union Square

Nicknamed “The Empress of Blues,” Bessie Smith was one of the most popular female blues singers of the 1920s and 30s. She influenced many vocalists who followed her, from Janis Joplin to Anita Baker. Her songs spoke to and about working people, African Americans, liberated women, and their (and anyone else’s) everyday troubles. Her “spoken word” style is considered to be an early influence of rap; her voice is considered by many to be extraordinary. To anyone interested in the history of music, African Americans, women, and LGBTQ+ people, she is considered an icon.

Bessie Smith, 1936. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Not surprisingly then, as a place rich in musical, African American, women’s, and LGBTQ+ history, Bessie Smith has a strong relationship to the area of our neighborhood South of Union Square.

Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She and her siblings busked on the street for money from an early age after both their parents died. As she got older, she joined chorus lines, working for the Black-owned Theater Owners Booking Association. In 1913, at the “81” Theatre in Atlanta, Smith began performing her own work. In 1923, she signed to Columbia Records, whose recording studios were located at 55 Fifth Avenue at 12th Street, in the area South of Union Square for which we are seeking landmark designation.

Smith married Jack Gee, a security guard, in 1923, before she rose to fame. After their wedding, she quickly became a celebrity. She headlined shows, toured the country, and was the highest paid Black musician of her time. She also was bisexual and had multiple affairs with women during her marriage. Gee also strayed. Finally the infidelity and fame caused the two to separate. 

Smith did a series of recordings labeled by record companies as “race records”— a marketing strategy pioneered by Okeh Records (which was also located at 55 Fifth Avenue) which the Columbia Phonograph recording company soon followed. The idea was to market Black musicians directly to Black people. But Smith, like many other Black musicians, was popular with both Black and white audiences, and a major influence on the broader popular culture.

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, Columbia Phonograph record. Courtesy of Rate Your Music.

In 1970, Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who worked in Smith’s house when she was younger and went on to become the president of the North Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, paid for a tombstone to be erected at Bessie Smith’s grave which had been left unmarked. In 1989, Bessie Smith was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The induction letter stated “The Empress of the Blues’ reign was definitive, unprecedented and glorious.” She was nominated by Anita Baker.

Bessie Smith, Courtesy of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Bessie Smith recorded with Columbia Phonograph recording studios in New York City just south of Union Square at 55 Fifth Avenue. Legendary jazz saxophonist Benny Carter and Jazz Vocalist Ethel Waters also recorded here with John Hammond, as did Benny Goodman, who recorded some of the very first integrated musical recordings here, with Billie Holiday, among others. Hammond, a renowned record producer, was also a civil rights activist, who went out of his way to try to integrate African American musicians into the recording industry, and see them receive their due they were long denied.  

55 Fifth Avenue

Village Preservation has recently received a series of extraordinary letters from individuals across the world, expressing support for our campaign to landmark a historic district south of Union Square.

To help landmark 55 Fifth Avenue and other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, and our preservation efforts in the area, click here. To learn more about Civil Rights and Social Justice sites in our neighborhood, click here. To learn more about LGBTQ+ sites south of Union Square, click here.

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