Record Piles

"The Original" Bessie Brown

Bessie.jpg

Born in April of 1889, Bessie Brown was one of the first Marysville born-and-raised singers to make it to the spotlight nationwide. She is known as “The Original” Bessie Brown and recorded between 1925 and 1929. In addition to singing, Bessie also acted and performed vaudeville.

Bessie was the only child of Thomas E. Brown (1860-1891) and Dora H. Evans (1867-1912). Just eight months after Bessie was born, her father departed and little is known about his later life. Dora and Bessie were forced to move in with Wiley and Parthinia Evans, Bessie’s grandparents, who likely raised her. By 1891, Dora had remarried and moved to Columbus, leaving Bessie to grow up in Marysville.

Wiley Evans was born a free man in North Carolina; until his dying day, he kept the pass proving his freedom on his person. In 1860, Wiley moved to Union County and quickly joined the Cotton Slash Settlement of Free Blacks. He later moved to Marysville, where he had eighteen children – including Dora Evans. 

Wiley Evans was born a free man in North Carolina; until his dying day, he kept the pass proving his freedom on his person. In 1860, Wiley moved to Union County and quickly joined the Cotton Slash Settlement of Free Blacks. He later moved to Marysville, where he had eighteen children – including Dora Evans. 

Wiley’s wife, Parthinia Mayo, was likely a relative of Joseph Mayo; both Parthinia and Joe came to Marysville from the South as free blacks leaving the likely conclusion that the two knew each other. Known around town as “Old Uncle Joe Mayo,” he is well-remembered as playing a very active role in the Marysville Underground Railroad. Uncle Joe’s parents were owned by the slaveholder and importer – also named Joseph Mayo. The slaveholder was lost at sea after attempting to find a wayward slave cargo ship; however, in his will, he set all of his slaves free, providing he should not return. Uncle Joe came to Marysville in 1848 at the age of 49 and worked as the principal well-digger and cleaner of the city. On the side, Uncle Joe was an ardent worker of the Underground Railroad. At the time, Marysville sat on one of the main lines in which runaways were conveyed to Canada. It is estimated that Joe helped 250 men and women make their way to freedom.

As evident in these flashbacks, Bessie was the descendant of influential and distinguished members of the Marysville community. However, Bessie herself went on to make history. Bessie attended Marysville schools where she was known for her euphonious soprano voice. She is not listed as a graduate of Marysville High School. By 16, Bessie married Henry Alfonso Smith and the couple had one daughter, Helen; three years after marriage, the pair divorced in 1908 and Bessie moved to Chicago to start a career in acting, singing and vaudeville.

During the height of her career, Bessie is known as a classic female blues, jazz, and cabaret singer. She is also known to have worked as a male impersonator due to her unique deep voice. She was most active during the years 1925 to 1929. She is billed at “The Original” Bessie Brown, but also worked under pseudonyms Caroline Lee and Sadie Green. In addition, Bessie appeared in revues such as the Moonshine Revue, The Whirl of Joy, and Dark-Town Frolics. Although she was based in Cleveland, Bessie performed – and achieved fame – primarily on the East Coast. 

In her musical recordings, Bessie is characterized by her deepened tone of voice, without any notable African American dialect. Her recordings were backed by some of the most prominent Harlem musicians of the time. Many of Bessie’s songs displayed strength that is now considered empowered anthems, such as “Song from a Cotton Field,” “Ain’t Much Good in the Best of Men Nowadays,” and “He Just Don’t Appeal to Me.” A compilation album including the bulk of her known recorded works was released by Document Records in 1996.

Bessie is not to be confused with her rival, also named Bessie Brown, who was active during the same time frame. Her rival worked the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit with George W. Williams, her husband. 

 

On August 11, 1920, Bessie married Clarence Bookam Shaw and the two moved to Cleveland. Bessie’s daughter, Helen, remained in Marysville and was likely raised by her great aunt, Flora Evans. Helen graduated from Marysville High School in 1924. Bessie kept a strong connection with Marysville and occasionally returned to see her daughter and aunt.  During her visits, she would often sing at the Marysville African Methodist Episcopal church for events. 

In 1940, Helen was living with her mother in Cleveland. Bessie was listed as a night club singer earning a yearly income of $1200 (equivalent today to about $22,000) and Helen, aged 33 and unmarried, worked as a junior clerk in a retail office earned $860 a year (equivalent to $15,785). By April of 1941, Helen married Arnold L. McReynolds in Cleveland.  

Bessie retired from Cleveland and moved to Florida, where she passed away on March 3, 1955 due to a heart attack. Helen passed in December of 1977, and Arnold in October 1990, both in Cleveland.

The Brown family was well-known in the Black community of Marysville from before Bessie’s time to well after; her descendant Clifton Brown went on to serve as the first Black Mayor of Marysville, serving from 1975 to 1979.