Bessie Smith FEATURED

Blues Law: Bessie Smith vs. Columbia Records

There was no shortage of controversy surrounding Bessie Smith's interaction with her record label. Find the fascinating, hidden decades-long fight over the Empress of the Blues' music, some of the most powerful in blues history.

bessie smithIn either 1892 or 1894, Bessie Smith, the future “Empress of the Blues” was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Following in the footsteps of vocalists like Ma Rainey and Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith would go on to carve out a legacy as one of the greatest vocalists of her era. Her career began as a street performer in the early 1900’s, but she would attain national prominence after signing with Columbia Records in 1923. It was this same year that Bessie Smith met and married Jack Gee. Their marriage was said to be stormy and they would be separated by the end of the decade. It is important to note that Smith and Gee never divorced but she would eventually settle down and remain with Richard Morgan until her death in 1937.

In addition to the 160 recordings released by Columbia Records, Smith would star on Broadway in “Pansy”, and later sang and starred in the film “St. Louis Blues”. Bessie Smith toured constantly during the 1920’s and 1930’s, often performing in theaters and at tent shows. She would become one of the main headliners and one of the highest paid African-American performers during these years. In addition to acting and singing, Bessie Smith was also a songwriter. She wrote approximately one-fourth of the songs she recorded for Columbia Records. It is out of these recordings that the case of Gee v. CBS, Inc. (612 F.2d 572) was heard before the Third Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, 40 years after her death.

In 1979, Jack Gee Jr., the son of Bessie Smith’s estranged husband, appealed his case to the Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania. On appeal, Mr. Gee Jr., the heir to his father’s estate and by default the legal heir to the Bessie Smith estate brought five claims against CBS Records, which had purchased Columbia Records. The opinion for the Court, written by the Honorable Judge Edward R. Becker, begins “This suit for damages and injunctive relief arises out of the luminous career of the late Bessie Smith, who may be fairly described as “Empress of the Blues.””

The first claim alleged that the very recording contracts and copyright agreements between Bessie Smith and Columbia Records should be deemed invalid on the basis that they were unconscionable, stating that Columbia Records took advantage of Smith’s illiteracy and lack of business savvy, noting that Columbia Records paid Smith an average of $200 per recording with no royalties. Bessie Smith’s recordings were out-selling her white label-mates but most of the white artists were being paid substantially more per recording and were receiving royalties.

The second claim was based solely on Bessie Smith’s 1925 song “At the Christmas Ball”. This song was originally rejected by Columbia Records as it was so different from her other material. Although originally rejected, Columbia Records would release the song decades later 1951 and again 1972. The claim suggests that Columbia Records had no rights to the song since Smith was never compensated for the original recording.

Claim three was based on State and Federal common-law copyright claims to the songs written by Smith, since the Federal Registration under which most copyright claims are brought would not apply as Smith was presumably not registered as the author of any of her original works.

Claims four and five were based on “misappropriation of artistic property” and “right of publicity” claims. The allegations were based on the fact that Columbia Records re-recorded Smith’s recordings using the new technology of the day and exploited her image and likeness in violation of Bessie Smith’s rights and those rights that would have transferred to her heirs and estate.

Sadly, although the opinion honors and details the legacy of Bessie Smith, based primarily on the Statute of Limitations, the Court dismissed the case and affirmed the lower Court’s decision in favor of CBS/Columbia Records.

Bessie Smith’s influence and legacy live on, with over a dozen hits on the Billboard Hot 100 list, induction into the Grammy, Rock and Roll, Big Band and Jazz, and Blues Halls of Fame, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award to her credit.

In a related side note, almost a century later there is still a great deal of controversy surrounding Bessie Smith’s death. What is known for sure is that on the night of September 25, 1937, while traveling on Highway 61, between Memphis, TN and Clarksdale, MS, the vehicle that Bessie and Richard Morgan were in was run off the road. A Memphis-based surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith, came upon the scene of the accident. His account of the scene, from his interview with Down Beat Magazine, that inspired the 1959 Edward Albee play “The Death of Bessie Smith”, stated that he found Smith in the road, near her over-turned Packard, having sustained severe injuries, including loss of blood, head trauma and intense injuries to her right side.

She was transported to the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, MS, where she would die there the following morning. Much of the controversy exists over the cause of the accident and whether or not Smith would have survived had she been allowed at the “White Hospital”. In later years, the G.T. Thomas Hospital would become the Riverside Inn where many legendary blues artists would stay while on tour. The room where Bessie Smith died is still open and has become a shrine to the Empress of the Blues.

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