Blues great Bessie Smith died in 1937 in Clarksdale, Mississipi at the hospital for African Americans, now the Riverside Hotel. After some rough years, The Empress of the Blues was on a rebound.
That is until her boyfriend came up too close on a slow moving truck. He passed the truck on the left, severing Bessie’s right arm, which was resting out the window.
I’m not a Bessie Smith expert. In fact, I knew little about her.
Yet something told me to visit the Riverside Hotel.
A guy from Canada on a Delta Blues pilgrimage strummed his guitar on the porch.
“Go in,” he said. “I think Zee’s around.”
We walked through the front door. Zee met us. “I’m getting ready for guests.”
I got the feeling a tour was not in our cards.
“Oh,” I said. “I wanted to see the place where Bessie Smith died.”
My tone or my expression must have softened her. “Right there,” she said, motioning to the room behind me. “That’s where Bessie passed. She bled out.”
Then Zee pointed to a long hallway. “Their footsteps are on those floors. Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Tuner, John Lee Hooker, all the greats.”
In the 1940s, Zee’s grandma bought the hospital and turned it into the Riverside Hotel, a men’s only hotel.
“Grandmama didn’t put up with anything from anybody. IkeTurner was a bad boy, but he behaved for Grandmama.”
Zee’s father, Frank “Rat” Ratcliff, took over the management of the hotel after his mother. He died last spring.
Now Zelina Ratcliff is the proprietress.
“Do you ever feel the spirits of the blues artists who stayed here?” I asked her.
“Others do. I just see my daddy.” Zee smiled. ” Everywhere.”
“After my dad died, ” I said, “I felt I was channeling him. Like part of him had become me. But then it faded, some. Don’t lose that connection as your grief subsides.”
“Oh, I won’t.” Zee shook her head. “Never.”
By now Cliff had stepped back outside to chat with the guy from Canada.
Zee and I talked about losing parents, loving parents.
I could have talked to her for hours.
But she had work to do.
I took her picture. I hugged her goodbye.
“Thank you,” I said. “So much.”
Read more about the history of the hotel here.
The Riverside Hotel website. Call if you want a reservation!
Take a tour of the hotel with Zee’s dad, Rat.
And listen to Bessie: