Chris Albertson, biographer of Bessie Smith, dies at 87

NEW YORK — Chris Albertson, who as a teenager in Denmark became captivated by blues singer Bessie Smith and decades later produced a widely praised multivolume reissue of her recordings and wrote an equally acclaimed biography, was found dead April 24 at his home in New York. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by Gary King, a longtime friend.

In 1959, Mr. Albertson took what became an inadvertent first step to resurrecting Smith’s recordings, made between 1923 and 1933: He invited John Hammond, the celebrated Columbia Records producer who had supervised her last sessions, to his apartment in Philadelphia.


Mr. Albertson, who was then a disc jockey at a jazz station, wanted Hammond to listen to two veteran jazz musicians, guitarist Lonnie Johnson and banjo player Elmer Snowden, in the hope he would sign them.

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While no deal was made, Hammond and Mr. Albertson stayed in touch over the next decade and spoke often about Bessie Smith. Mr. Albertson eventually persuaded Hammond to reissue her recordings, a cache of musical history that includes acknowledged classics like “Downhearted Blues” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do.” Her accompanists included Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fletcher Henderson on piano.

In 1968, Hammond agreed to the project, naming Mr. Albertson its producer and Larry Hiller its engineer. In “Bessie” (1972), his biography, Mr. Albertson described the process of listening to all 159 of Smith’s recorded songs as “a remarkable experience that only the raw power and emotion of an artist like Bessie Smith could keep from becoming mind-numbing.”

In all, 10 LPs of her work were released, in five two-disc sets. The first, “Bessie Smith: The World’s Greatest Blues Singer” (1970), earned Mr. Albertson a Grammy Award for best liner notes. The other four were released gradually through 1972.

Reviewing the first four two-album sets in The New Yorker in 1971, Whitney Balliett called the results “a wonder.”


Mr. Albertson’s work on those reissues quickly led to a contract with the publishing house Stein & Day to write Bessie Smith’s biography.

“Bessie” was quickly acknowledged as the definitive Bessie Smith biography. Reviewing it in The Los Angeles Times, jazz critic Leonard Feather called it “the most devastating, provocative and enlightening work of its kind ever contributed to the annals of jazz literature.”