Riverside Hotel

Riverside Hotel - Clarksdale

Since 1944 the Riverside Hotel has provided lodging for traveling musicians. It was home to some, including Sonny Boy Williamson II, Ike Turner, and Robert Nighthawk. Before that, the building served African Americans of the Delta as the G.T. Thomas Hospital. Blues singer Bessie Smith died here in 1937 from injuries sustained in a car accident while traveling to Clarksdale for a performance.

On the morning of September 26, 1937, Bessie Smith, “the empress of the blues,” died here at the G.T. Thomas Afro American Hospital following an automobile accident on Highway 61 just outside of Clarksdale. Smith, known for her powerful voice and the raw emotion of her delivery, was the biggest star of the blues in the 1920s, and was in the process of making a comeback.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the early 1890s, Smith lost both parents by the time she was nine, and she and her older sister were left caring for nine younger children. Smith and her brother Andrew began performing on the streets to earn money. She began her professional career in 1912 as a dancer with the Moses Stokes touring company, which also included Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939), later dubbed the “mother of the blues.” Rainey served as a mentor to Smith, who soon became an established performer on the African-American vaudeville circuit.

In 1923 Bessie Smith made her first recording for the Columbia label, “Downhearted Blues / Gulf Coast Blues.” The single was the first in a string of hits, including “St. Louis Blues,” and Smith soon became the highest paid African-American performer of the 1920s. At the time of her fatal accident, Smith was in her Packard on her way from Memphis to Clarksdale to spend the night. She was to appear the following day with the traveling show Broadway Rastus in the community of Darling, about 20 miles northeast of here. It was widely rumored that Smith’s death resulted from her being refused admission to Clarksdale’s “white” hospital, but the facts suggest otherwise. The reality was that during that time local ambulance drivers would not have considered taking an African-American patient to a “white” hospital in the first place.

Like hospitals, housing accommodations were segregated prior to the 1970s, and some hotels catered to touring musicians. In 1944 the building was opened as the Riverside Hotel, and regular guests in the ’40s and ’50s included local blues artists Sonny Boy Williamson II, Robert Nighthawk, Raymond Hill, Ike Turner, Joe Willie Wilkins, James “Peck” Curtis, Johnny O’Neal, and Robert “Dudlow” Taylor. Another notable guest in the hotel was John F. Kennedy, Jr., who stayed here in 1991.

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