Profile of Legendary 1920s Blues Singer Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith (1936). American Memory from the Library of Congress

Born:

April 15, 1894. Her parents were Laura (née Owens) and William Smith, he was a laborer and Baptist preacher. Her family included a number of sisters and half-brothers, but sources differ.

Birthplace:

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Died:

September 26, 1937 in Clarksdale, Mississippi in an automobile accident.

Also Known As:

Bessie Smith was hailed “Empress of the Blues” and was one of the greatest blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s.

Her vocal range was contralto but she wasn't limited to singing, she could also dance and act. Bessie Smith was one of the highest paid African-American artists of her time.

Influence:

With her brother Andrew, Bessie sang and danced on street corners to help with the family expenses. As a teenager she was hired by Moses Stokes’ traveling troupe as a dancer. Stokes employed her brother Clarence as well as the then unknown singer Ma Rainey. Rainey would mentor Smith in her stagecraft. And in turn she would influence other singers later, including Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Janis Joplin.

Early Career:

Smith began her own act around 1913 in Atlanta, principally at the 81 Theatre. Bessie later toured on the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit. With the advent of recording, and the subsequent discovery of the market for “race” records — broadly, music that appealed to African-Americans — Smith was signed by Frank Walker to Columbia Records in 1923.

Rise to Fame:

"Down-Hearted Blues," a single paired with “Gulf Coast Blues,” was her first recording; it sold nearly 800,000 copies. (The song was originally made popular by Alberta Hunter.) She went on to collaborate with numerous legends of the time, including Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, and Fletcher Henderson.

Smith toured theaters in winter and tent shows in summer, eventually traveling in her own rail car. She would record 160 songs for Columbia.

In Film:

Bessie Smith’s only film appearance was in 1929, in St. Louis Blues. She sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, a choir and string section.

Later Years:

Smith’s final recordings were made in 1933, by the producer John Hammond. Her career had been derailed by the Great Depression, which nearly ruined the recording industry, and the death of the vaudeville circuit. The recordings reflected a swing-era sensibility in marked contrast to the blues that had made her famous. She continued to tour.

Death:

Smith was traveling on Rt. 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale, Mississippi, with her companion Richard Morgan when Morgan hit a truck. Smith was severely injured and brought to G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where her right arm was amputated. She died shortly thereafter, without regaining consciousness. 10,000 mourners attended her funeral in Philadelphia.

Notable Songs:

Some of her hits include “Down Hearted Blues,” “Gulf Coast Blues,” “Backwater Blues,” “Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” “St. Louis Blues,” "Baby Doll," "After You've Gone" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out."

Music Sample:

Bessie Smith sings "St. Louis Blues."