b. Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, 14 August 1894, Alderson, West Virginia, USA, d. 31 January 1984, New York City, New York, USA. Raised in Chicago, Illinois, Smith became a singer and dancer at South Side clubs and also toured theatres on the Pantages and Theatre Owner’s Booking Association circuits. At the age of 20 she was in New York, performing at several of the city’s best-known black clubs. Among people she met in these years were band leader Elmer Snowden and composer Cole Porter. She would later claim to have recommended Snowden’s band, which included pianist Duke Ellington, to the management at Barron Wilkins’ club during a spell when she was working there. Her reported encounter with Porter apparently led to his hiring her to perform for him and his friends in Europe. Various accounts are given regarding the composition by Porter of ‘Miss Otis Regrets’, one of which is that it was written especially for her to perform.
Nicknamed Bricktop because of her red hair, Smith was resident in Paris, France from the early 20s, performing at several nightclubs including George Jamerson’s Le Grand Duc, which she ran for a while. In 1928 she opened a new club, named Chez Bricktop, in rue Pigalle. Her audiences included society’s upper crust, faded royals, film stars and the literary and artistic set. Among the later were expatriate American writers who thronged Paris in those years, notably Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. Among artists she hired and/or encouraged with work at her clubs was the young British singer Mabel Mercer, who became Smith’s partner in 1931. Leaving Paris following the outbreak of World War II, Smith returned to the USA. In 1943, she opened a club in Mexico City, funded by multi-millionaire Doris Duke, then in 1950 returned to Paris and another club, this time in the rue Fontaine, then Rome and a nightspot the via Veneto where she remained until 1961. All of these clubs were, of course, named Bricktop’s.
During her remaining years Smith continued to perform, wrote an assisted autobiography, appeared in the documentary film Honeybaby, Honeybaby (1974), played herself in Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983), and devoted a lot of time to the Roman Catholic Church to which she was a convert. Smith appears to have made only one record; this was ‘So Long Baby’ made with Cy Coleman in the early 70s.