Bessie Smith is known as “The Empress of the Blues.” She was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., and although her exact date of birth is unknown, it is believed to have been either in July 1892 or April 1984. Bessie came of age during the Golden Era of the Blues during the ‘20s and ‘30s and has remained a major influence to artists every since.
Bessie’s father, a laborer and part time minister, died shortly after her birth. By the time she turned nine, she had also lost her mother and it fell on her sister Viola to raise her in an impoverished household. To earn money, Bessie and her brother Andrew began performing for tips and gratuities given by those that passed by on the streets of Chattanooga. While Bessie sang and danced, Andrew played the guitar, often outside the White Elephant Saloon.
Bessie’s older brother Clarence left in 1904 to join the Moses Stokes troupe when Bessie was only 10 or 12. Clarence returned eight years later and convinced the managers to give Bessie an audition. She was hired, but as a dancer, not a singer. Bessie left the troupe in 1915 and worked the vaudeville circuit in the south and along the eastern coastline. She found much success and she and pianist Clarence Williams made her first recordings, Gulf Coast Blues and Down Hearted Blues, in 1923 for Columbia.
Bessie recorded with many of the jazz greats of the ‘20s including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, and Don Redman. Some experts believe her recording of St. Louis Blues with Armstrong was one of the finest examples of jazz in that era. As the headliner of the Theater Owners Booking Association, Bessie was at one point the highest paid black entertainer in the country.
However, once the Great Depression hit, the classic blues were out of style and Bessie was dropped from her recording contract at Columbia. Bessie continued to tour after being dropped from her recording contract and in 1933, she recorded four sides for Okeh that showed a shift from the blues to swing era style of music.
Looking to be on the verge of a comeback, Bessie was killed in a car wreck on U.S. Route 61 when traveling between Memphis, Tenn. And Clarksdale, Miss. The story circulated that Bessie died because she was refused admittance to a “whites only” hospital and had to travel further to a hospital that would admit blacks, but that later proved to only be a rumor. She was buried in a grave in Sharon Hill, Penn. that was unmarked until 1970.
Since her death, three of Bessie’s recordings – Downhearted Blues, St. Louis Blues, and Empty Bed Blues – have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
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