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The Traditional Delta and Country Blues

Ruby Smith

Ruby Smith, b. August 24, 1903 in New York, NY, d. March 24, 1977 in Ahaheim, CA, classic female blues singer. She was a niece, by marriage, of the better-known Bessie Smith, who discouraged Ruby from pursuing a recording career. Nevertheless, following Bessie's death in 1937, Ruby recorded twenty-one sides between 1938 and 1947. She is also known for her candid observations on her own and Bessie's lifestyle.

She was born Ruby Walker in New York City. She met Bessie Smith, her aunt (by marriage), in Philadelphia. After Bessie's debut recording, in February 1923, Ruby joined her on tour in 1924. Ruby assisted off-stage with costume changes and provided entertainment during intermissions by dancing. Ruby's thoughts of a career as a singer were initially thwarted in 1926 at Bessie's insistence, but they continued traveling together on tour. In Atlanta, Georgia, Ruby spent a night in jail after being caught bringing moonshine for her aunt to consume. In 1927, Ruby was part of the female entourage led by Bessie to the "buffet flats" in Detroit, Michigan. A lengthy recorded interview she gave to Chris Albertson contained references to this time and others, and the recording became part of Bessie Smith's The Complete Recordings, Vol. 5: The Final Chapter box set. Of a particularly "open house" sex show, Smith said, "People used to pay good just to go in there and see him do his act." Later Jack Gee, Bessie's then husband, once implored Ruby to take the musical stage, after her aunt had walked out in Indianapolis, Indiana. However, the deception did not last long, and in the event Bessie died in 1937. Shortly afterwards, Ruby adopted the stage name Ruby Smith, and less than a year later she recorded six tracks including a cover version of Bessie's "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair Blues." At the same session she waxed her version of the Alex Hill penned, "Draggin' My Heart Around." In March 1939, Smith under the musical direction of James P. Johnson, recorded "He's Mine, All Mine" and "Backwater Blues" (the latter written by Bessie Smith and Johnson). In December 1941, backed by an ensemble led by Sammy Price, she recorded two more tracks, "Why Don't You Love Me Anymore?" and her own song, "Harlem Gin Blues". Her final recording sessions took place in August 1946 and January 1947, when she was backed by Gene Sedric's band. Smith died on March 24, 1977, in Anaheim, California, at the age of 73. Her recorded work has been issued on several compilation albums, including Jazzin' the Blues (1943–1952), released by Document Records in 2000.


by arwulf arwulf
Bessie Smith was the Empress of the Blues, and Ruby Walker was her niece by marriage. She tried to get herself recorded as early as 1926, but was eclipsed by her aunt, who discouraged her from making records on her own. While the music she eventually did manage to record is worth pursuing, Ruby's more than 70-minute interview (taped by historian Chris Albertson and released on the fifth and final box set of Columbia's complete Bessie Smith edition in the '90s) is a valuable resource that contains some of the best, most candidly phrased memories of Bessie Smith in existence. The interview, like Albertson's book Bessie is packed with tales of drinking, partying, screwing, fighting, glorying in and grappling with the blues. Ruby's story provides context for the recordings of both women.

Ruby Walker was born in New York City on August 24, 1903. She met Bessie in Philadelphia, and first heard her sing at the home of the mother of Bessie's new husband Jack Gee on 132nd Street in Harlem, shortly before Bessie made her first recordings with pianist and producer Clarence Williams in February 1923. When Bessie set out on tour in 1924, she took her niece with her, putting her to work assisting with elaborate costume changes and performing dance routines during intermissions. In 1925 they prepared to open at the Frolic Theater in Birmingham, Alabama by witnessing Ma Rainey's spectacular show on its closing night. The friendship between Rainey and Smith is well known, and Ruby's account of their backstage encounter at the Frolic is one of the cornerstones of their shared legend.

Though life on the road was tough and dangerous, Bessie Smith toured regularly with her traveling tent show and continued to bring her niece along with her. During a visit to Bessie's hometown of Chattanooga, TN, a pushy man who tried to hassle Ruby was knocked unconscious by Bessie after he ignored her warning to cease and desist. Hours later when the women were leaving, he jumped out of the bushes and stuck a knife in Bessie's side. She chased him for three blocks before allowing the knife to be removed, and had to be hospitalized. Bessie's response to male aggression (other than that of her own abusive spouse) was consistent throughout her life; in early 1937, Ruby would watch as Bessie kicked a man squarely in the balls for insulting her at a bar in Harlem.

While in Atlanta, GA where Bessie loudly refused to use the back entrance of a whites-only theater in which she was scheduled to perform, Ruby spent the night in jail after being caught with a gallon of bootleg liquor she was fetching for her aunt. Bessie was also jailed in Atlanta after she got into a bloody brawl with a jealous chorus girl who had slashed Ruby's brand new dancing shoes to ribbons. In 1926, Bessie hired an ex-schoolmate of Ruby's named Lillian Simpson as a chorus girl; by the end of the year, she had taken her on as one of her many female lovers. This relationship, begun in Tennessee, ended in St. Louis with Simpson's suicide attempt in January 1927. Soon afterwards, Bessie took her female entourage on a select tour of the buffet flats of Detroit, MI. These were speakeasies that specialized in live sex shows. It was Ruby's fate to describe those aspects of her aunt's lifestyle on magnetic tape for posterity to study.

Jack Gee is remembered as a batterer who cheated on Bessie regularly and made her miserable, particularly when he used large amounts of Bessie's money to finance the career of his girlfriend Gertrude Saunders. Bessie and Jack's marriage finally dissolved during a run at the Wallace Theater in Indianapolis, IN. When Bessie walked out on the show, Jack coerced Ruby into impersonating Bessie! "They padded me up and put me onstage. I went along with it only because Bessie wasn't there, she was very jealous at the time, and she didn't want anybody to sing that was halfway good. Someone must have told her about me singing in Indianapolis because she came back, and ran me offstage." When Gee left Bessie for good, he forced his niece to go with him and perform as a member of the Gertrude Saunders show, which she quit in 1935 after Saunders insulted and humiliated her for the last time.

Within months of Bessie's death in 1937, Ruby changed her last name to Smith and began cutting records very much in the manner of her famous aunt. Ruby's first recording sessions took place in 1938. In addition to a cover of Bessie's famous "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," she sang "Dream Man Blues," "Selfish Blues," "Flyin' Mosquito Blues," and "Draggin' My Heart Around," an Alex Hill composition which had been introduced eight years earlier by Fats Waller. On March 9, 1939 Ruby alternated with Anna Robinson and sang "He's Mine, All Mine" and Bessie Smith's "Back Water Blues" with an orchestra under the direction of James P. Johnson, who had accompanied Bessie on the original recording of "Back Water" in 1927. In December, 1941 Ruby sang "Why Don't You Love Me Anymore?" and "Harlem Gin Blues" with a band led by pianist Sammy Price. In August 1946 and January 1947 she recorded a total of eight titles with ex-Fats Waller sax and clarinet man Gene "Honeybear" Sedric, still channeling the Bessie Smith sound at times, but also lightening up and singing "cool" like Una Mae Carlisle, or grooving out and sounding like Billie Holiday would ten years later. Ruby Walker Smith passed away in Anaheim, CA on March 24, 1977.