Bessie Smith was a blues and jazz vocalist, who was extremely popular in the 1920s and 1930s. She was born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee to Laura and William Smith. Her father was a Baptist preacher who died shortly after her birth, and she was raised by her mother along with her siblings. When Bessie was nine, her mother and brother died as well. Subsequently, her older sister Viola cared for the family and they all went to live with their aunt. They grew up in impoverished circumstances, so in order to make ends meet, Bessie and her brother would perform on the streets. Bessie would sing and dance, while her brother played the guitar. Her eldest brother Clarence secretly left the family and started performing with a group of traveling musicians, owned by Moses Stokes. He knew that if he told Bessie, she would insist on coming with him.
8 years later, when Clarence returned to Chattanooga, he arranged for an audition for Bessie. The troupe already had a singer called Gertrude Rainey (or Ma Rainey, as she was more popularly known), so Bessie was chosen as a dancer. Rainey helped Bessie groom her personality, and develop a powerful stage presence. She then started performing at a theatre in Atlanta called “81”. In 1923, she received a recording contract from Columbia Records, which was a very rare occurrence for a black performer in those days. With her powerful voice, she soon started recorded hit singles right off the bat. The single “Downhearted Blues” was one of the most popular ones and sold approximately 800,000 copies.
Bessie Smith was soon thrust into the spotlight and started touring all over the country. She was one of the top performers in the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) and the most highly paid one amongst them. The media nicknamed her “Empress of the Blues”. She made approximately 160 recordings for Columbia Records, along with some of the best musicians of the day, such as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, James Johnson, Joe Smith and Charlie Green.
With the advent of the Great Depression, entertainment came to an all time low. Smith continued to perform whenever she could, booking gigs in theatres or doing small “tent” performances. She appeared in one Broadway Play called “Pansy” which never appealed to audiences, but critics praised her performance as the only saving grace. She also made a film appearance in 1929, in a thriller titled “St. Louis Blues” for which she also sang the title song. Her last few recordings were made in 1933 for Okeh Records as requested by their executive John Hammond. She was paid a fee of $37.50 for each song. These tracks show a hint of “swing” influence on her music, which Hammond did not entirely appreciate, as he wanted her to perform her original blues music.
Bessie Smith died in September 1937 in a car accident while driving between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. She was 43 years old at the time of her death. She was first married to a security guard named Jack Gee. Both partners were unfaithful to each other and the marriage ended in 1929. She then married her friend Richard Morgan, to whom she remained married until her death. More than 4 decades after her death, some of her recordings were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.