The Empress of the Blues
The daughter of a preacher, Bessie Smith overcame Southern poverty to become the greatest and most influential classic Blues singer of the early 20th century, earning the title “Empress of the Blues.”
Bessie was born to a poor family in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her date of birth is uncertain, sometime between 1894 and 1900. Bessie’s career began when she joined the Moses Stokes Company’s traveling (vaudeville) show around 1912, initially as a dancer. There she was exposed to the subtleties and intricacies of blues, then still an emerging art form, as performed by Ma Rainey, known as “the Mother of the Blues.” Music historians debate the extent to which Ma Rainey influenced Bessie Smith’s rise as a featured vocalist.
Bessie’s first recording, “Down Hearted Blues,” was released in the spring of 1923. Though released without special promotion, it was an immediate success. As a result of her hit, she started touring on the best race (black) artist vaudeville circuits booked by TOBA – short for Theatre Owners Booking Association, but derisively said to stand for “tough on black asses.”
By the mid-twenties, Bessie was touring her own show through the entire South and most of the major northern cities, always as the star attraction. During that period, she was the highest-paid black entertainer in the country. Married twice, Bessie also became known as a fiercely independent, wild-living, short-tempered, and hard-drinking woman, who enjoyed the intimate company of women as well as men. On the other hand, Bessie could be warmly loyal to, and motheringly protective of her friends.
By 1930, her career faltered due to the public’s changing musical tastes, mismanagement of her affairs, and her heavy drinking. In many ways, one of her best known songs, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” could have been the soundtrack to her later life. What turned out to be Bessie’s last recording session took place in 1933, part of what some were hoping would inaugurate a comeback.
In the early morning hours of September 26, 1937, Bessie was a passenger in a car driven by her companion Richard Morgan, a former Chicago bootlegger. Near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the car collided with a truck, and rolled over. The car was struck a second time by another vehicle that continued on without stopping. A third car, this one containing a white physician, stopped to offer assistance. Eventually, an ambulance arrived which took Bessie to a hospital where she died. It has been speculated that, had she survived, she would not have been able to sing again.
Bessie Smith had a huge sweeping voice, capable of both strength and tenderness. She could convey the entire meaning of a line by a subtle accent on a syllable, and could precisely render or “bend” a note to express her feelings. Bessie recorded with many of the jazz greats of her day, including Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Bechet, Bennie Goodman, and Joe Smith. Bessie left behind over 160 recordings, and one short movie, The St. Louis Blues (1929), which affords the only opportunity to see the great Bessie Smith sing.
In 1970, Janis Joplin and others laid a headstone on the unmarked Philadelphia grave of Bessie Smith; it reads: “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing – Bessie Smith 1895-1937.” In 1980 Bessie Smith was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame and, in 1989, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.