Bertha Lee Pate, of Lula, Mississippi, was Charlie Patton’s last wife, a classic blues singer, and together they recorded many sides in his final 1934 session in New York City. Many of these sides have been lost, but several survived including Oh Death. Most of these missing titles are credited to “Patton and Lee,” suggesting that if Patton had not passed away when he did (he passed, tragically, less than three months after this final recording session from a heart ailment), he would have released more records with Bertha Lee, which would have been reflected in live performances, and in Bertha Lee’s subsequent success as a recording artist. After Patton’s untimely death, for which grief was widespread, especially in the Delta, Pate moved to Chicago, where she lived the rest of her life in relative anonymity. It is unknown whether she ever recorded again, or what became of her singing career. It seems possible that, like Ishmon Bracey and others, she may have been moved by Patton’s death to rededicate herself to gospel music, and spiritual life.
In the strength her voice, Pate seems to embody the “heart like a piece of railroad steel” that Patton recognizes and praises in his earlier recordings. Together, Pate and Patton created a balanced female-male sound which made these recordings, especially gospel recordings such as Oh Death and Troubled ‘Bout My Mother, among the most captivating of Patton’s formidable body of recorded works. More to come on Bertha Lee Pate, Patton, the ‘34 Vocalion sessions, and related topics.