Clara Smith

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Date: 1992
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,280 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1150L

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About this Person
Born: 1897 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, United States
Died: February 02, 1935 in Detroit, Michigan, United States
Nationality: American
Updated:Dec. 20, 1992
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Clara Smith began her career in vaudeville, where she developed a reputation as a blues performer, singer, and pianist. She is believed to have started her career around 1910, when she was about sixteen and began working the theater circuit. She is particularly associated with the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), with which she was a star by 1918. Although she toured throughout her career, in 1923 she settled in Harlem, New York, where she performed in clubs, managed revues, and recorded, and made her mark as one of the great blues singers of the era.

Smith was born in 1894 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She married former baseball manager Charles Wesley in 1926. At the age of forty she entered Parkside Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, and died of a heart attack on February 21, 1935. She is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Macomb County, Michigan. Little else is known of her personal life.

Smith's vaudeville career was extensive. During her time with the TOBA she performed throughout the South, appearing at the Lyric Theater in New Orleans, Louisiana, and at the Bijou Theater in Nashville, Tennessee, among many other places. She toured with Al Well's Smart Set tent show in 1920, worked in Columbus, Georgia, at the Dream Theater, and performed in Saint Louis, Missouri, at the Booker T. Washington Theater (Blues Who's Who, 466).

In New York, Smith's career included various activities, not the least of which was managing her own revues. In 1924 she opened her own club, the Clara Smith Theatrical Club. In 1927 she appeared in two shows of her own, the Black Bottom Revue and the Clara Smith Revue. Between 1927 and 1935 Clara Smith appeared in revues, including the Swanee Club Revue, the Ophelia Show From Baltimo Revue, Dream Girls Revue, Candied Sweets Revue, and a number of others in New York City. She performed many of these shows in the Alhambra Theater, also playing at the Lafayette, the Lincoln, the Ambassador, Harlem Fifth Avenue Theater, Harlem Opera House, and the Apollo (in Atlantic City, New Jersey). During this time Smith also toured to the Standard Theater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Orchestra Gardens in Detroit, Michigan, performing quite a number of dates in other places such as Cleveland, Ohio, and as far west as California. In addition to these performances, Smith performed on radio radio in New York City, in the "Swanee Club Revue" (1928). She also performed in Trouble on the Ranch, an all-black musical western (1931).

Another important aspect of Smith's career includes her performance as a recording artist. She recorded for Columbia, Paramount, and Okeh, releasing as many as 125 recorded selections. According to Sally Placksin, Smith "began recording for Paramount in 1923, and her first song was 'Every Woman's Blues'" (39). It was also in 1923 that Smith "was put under contract by Columbia" and according to Harris, "she remained with the company for more than a decade except for one release on Okeh in October 1930 under the pseudonym Violet Green" (240).

Smith's professional associates include well-known blues and jazz performers. Her recording accompanists included Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Green, and Joe Smith, among others. In the extravagant Club Alabam' Revue she worked with comedian Doc Straine. In the early thirties she paired up with Paul Barbarin in New York. Just as important, however, is her professional relationship with Bessie Smith, with whom she recorded for Columbia. Clara Smith was Columbia's second most prolific female blues recording artist, yielding only to Bessie (the two were not related). They shared the same accompanists. While Columbia promoted Bessie as the Queen of the Blues, it promoted Clara as the Queen of the Moaners.

Clara Smith's performance and blues style appealed to a large audience. With broad experience in vaudeville and musical revues, Smith's performance style was highly dramatic and often somewhat comedic. Her delivery was emotional, insinuating, and witty. Harris writes, for example, that Smith "took advantage of each opportunity for dramatizing her lyrics by shedding tears, emitting mournful wails, and clutching her stole or the stage curtains around her body in obvious anguish" (241). Harris further quotes Coy Herndon's description of Smith:

Her voice is a typical blues singer type, combined with a wonderful personality, but she is a comedienne ... of the highest order. Her blues gained numerous encores and her facial expressions, combined with a distinct personality, caused the audience to ache from laughter (243).

Singer Called "Queen of the Moaners"

Smith's blues style prompted her description as the Queen of the Moaners. The melodrama and pathos referred to by Harris provided Smith a distinct avenue of appeal to her audience. She has been labeled a classic blues performer by some and an urban blues performer by others. Referring to female blues singers whose lyrics included sexual innuendo, William Barlow includes Smith and her "Whip It to a Jelly" among the likes of Martha Copeland, Cleo Gibson, and Lil Johnson, all of whom he identifies as performers of "classic blues that reflects the influence of commercialism compris[ing] vaudeville-based songs featuring graphic metaphors for sexual activity, which were often linked to culinary delights" (142). Barlow indicates that "It's Tight Like That" exemplifies the type, and although it was composed by Thomas Dorsey and Tampa Red, it was first recorded by Smith. According to Harris, furthermore, "Clara Smith sang straight country blues as well as Ma Rainey did, or the city blues like Sippie Wallace... . Clara Smith cannot be labeled a vaudeville or ballad singer who sometimes performed the blues; her voice and style are categorically city blues with a touch of country soul" (242).

Smith appealed to an audience that appreciated not only her emotive delivery but also her humor. Placksin reveals that she "drew a tough, raucous crowd ... the more 'evil' her routines and singing got, the more her audiences loved it" (40). She frequently included her audience through a technique in which she engaged them in dialogue related to a song's content. Her more emotive tunes are exemplified by "Awful Moaning Blues," which combines song text and tonality as devices that justify her dramatic presentation and her audience's empathetic appreciation. The song concerns a woman left alone without friends. The tonality derives from prefatory moans that continue throughout the song and are accompanied by voice tremors and quavers. In Harris's opinion, "Smith's voice conveys a down-in-the-mouth mood, alternating between a hard, dry sound and a tremulous, tragic whine" (240).

Clara Smith's recording career included several duets with the famous Bessie Smith, also recording on the Columbia label. Edward Brooks notes that they recorded together three times, each with Bessie Smith as the dominant figure: "Far Away Blues," accompanied by Fletcher Henderson, "I'm Going Back to My Used to Be," and "My Man Blues," a Bessie Smith composition (93). This latter song, "My Man Blues," is a playful argument with each singer laying claim to one "Charlie Grey." Chris Albertson states that although Clara and Bessie never performed together live, they got along well together until their friendship ended during a disagreement at a party in New York in 1925 (105).

Clara Smith was, according to Al Wynn, "very attractive, and a nice person" (Oliver, 136). She is also described as having been "one of the 'dressiest' women on stage" (Placksin, 39). Harris describes her: "Clara Smith was a handsome woman with a broad face and a big smile. Her large wide-set eyes and broad nose gave her a resemblance to Bessie" (239). Although Clara Smith was relatively small in physical stature, she was a great figure in the development and legacy of blues sound.


Albertson, Chris. Bessie. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.

Barlow, William. "Looking Up at Down": The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Brooks, Edward. The Bessie Smith Companion. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982.

Harris, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920's. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.

Harris, Sheldon, ed. Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1979. Photograph, p. 466.

Oliver, Paul. Conversation With the Blues. New York: Horizon Press, 1965.

Placksin, Sally. American Women in Jazz: 1900 to the Present. New York: Seaview Books, 1982.

Rye, Howard. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Ed. Barry Kernfeld. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

Southern, Eileen. Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|K1623000409