Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

Bessie Smith holding feathers, February 3, 1936
Photo by Carl Van Vechten, Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress (ppmsca.09571)

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Along with Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith, singer Bessie Smith helped pioneer the genre of blues music and propel it into popular culture. Her early death at the age of 43 cut short a career that influenced the direction of American music and contributed to the success of African Americans in the performing arts.

Smith was born into poverty most likely on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee to William Smith, a preacher, and Laura Smith. Both parents died when Bessie was young. To help support her orphaned siblings, Bessie began her career as a Chattanooga street musician, singing in a duo with her brother Andrew to earn money to support their indigent family.

In 1912 at the age of 18 she joined the traveling Moses Stokes Company, where she met and became friends with Georgia blues performer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Smith traveled with the show as a singer and dancer and then as a performer with the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), the leading vaudeville circuit for black American performers during the 1920s and 1930s. With TOBA, Smith gradually built up a regional and eventually a national following. In 1921 she was ready to record, but early auditions with recording companies like Okeh were unsuccessful.

However, the year 1923 proved significant to Smith both personally and professionally. She married night watchman John “Jack” Gee, and she made her recording debut with Columbia Records teaming with pianist Clarence Williams. Evidence suggests that both Gee and Williams siphoned money from Bessie’s earnings as her career took off.

Initially, Smith and Williams recorded two songs, “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues,” which sold more than 750,000 in its first year of release. Following her debut success, Columbia Records promoted her as “Queen of the Blues,” but the press soon upgraded her nickname to “Empress of the Blues.”

During her career, Smith also worked with musicians such as James P. Johnson, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman and Louis Armstrong. Throughout the 1920s she made more than 160 recordings with Columbia and appeared briefly on stage and screen performances. In 1929 she sang in the Broadway revue Pansy, and the same year she starred in St. Louis Blues, a short film based on W.C. Handy’s song.

In 1931 Smith’s career took a turn when Columbia Records dropped her from its label. Although she was still popular among many blues fans in the South and along the East Coast, Smith’s style was falling out of favor with the growing popularity of jazz and swing music coupled with reduced record sales during the Depression. She was attempting a comeback as a swing performer with the help of jazz producer and song writer John Hammond when she died in a fatal car crash near Clarksdale, Mississippi on September 26, 1937.

Since her death Bessie Smith has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, winning posthumous awards for her 1923 single “Downhearted Blues,” 1925 single “St. Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong, and a 1928 single “Empty Bed Blues.” Smith has also been honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.