"Empress of the Blues"

The Life of Bessie Smith by Monique' Gregory

Early Life

Born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Elizabeth (Bessie) Smith was one of seven children. Her father died soon after she was born leaving her mother to take care of her and her siblings. Around 1904, her mother and two of her brothers passed away. This meant that Bessie and her remaining siblings had to go live with their aunt. It was around this time that Bessie began performing as a street singer. In 1912, she began to perform as a dancer in the Moses Stokes minstrel show, and soon after that in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. The blues vocalist Ma Rainey was also apart of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and took Bessie under her wing. Over the next decade Bessie performed at various theaters and on the vaudeville circuit.


By the early 1920's Bessie had settled down and was living in Philadelphia, PA. In 1923, she married Jack Gee. That same year she was discovered by Clarence Williams a representative from Columbia Records. She signed a contract and started recording songs in New York. One of the tracks that was recorded was Downhearted Blues. Downhearted Blues was wildly popular and sold over 800,000 copies. The success of the song propelled Bessie into the spotlight. She soon became a successful recording artist and toured frequently.

Bessie Smith worked with many other famous artist including Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, and James P. Johnson. She recorded Backwater Blues with James P. Johnson, and she also worked with Louis Armstrong on several tunes. By the end of the 1920's she was one of the highest paid African American female performers.

Death & Legacy

On September 26, 1937 Bessie Smith was on the way to a show in Memphis, Tennessee when the driver of the car she was in sideswiped a truck and lost control of the car. Bessie was thrown from the vehicle and severely injured. She later died at a hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Bessie Smith

It's a long old road, but I know I'm gonna find the end. - Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith (Down Hearted Blues, 1923) Jazz Legend
Janis Joplin- Piece of my heart