Bessie Smith

Empress of the Blues

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Early Life

Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15, 1894. Bessie was one of seven children. Her father who was a minister died shortly after she was born leaving the mother to take care of the children. Around 1906 when she was around eight or nine years old her mother and two of her brothers died leaving the rest of the children to be raised by their aunt. It was around that time that she realized she had an beautiful voice and started to perform as a street singer for money with her younger brother Andrew who played guitar. Bessie Smith started to perform as a dancer in the Moses Strokes Minstrel. She later joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrel where a blues singer named Ma Rainey took her under her wing.


By the early 20's she had moved to Philadelphia. In 1923 she met and married a man named Jack Gee. That same year she was discovered by a Columbia Record's representative. She signed a contract and made her first songs in February 1923. Her first records were called the "Downhearted Blues" and the "Gulf Coast Blues." These records sold a whopping 780 in the first six months making her famous. Bessie became a successful artist and soon from the influence by her brother and manager she bought a custom traveling railroad car for her and her troupe to travel and sleep in. During her career she collaborated with many jazz artists. She even worked with the famous trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Together they made several songs including "Cold In Hand Blues." By the end of the 20's she was the highest payed black performer earning herself the name of "Empress of The Blues."

The Depression

In 1929 due to financial ravages and change in cultural mores she and Jack Gee separated. She also struggled with liquor problems. She also starred in a two reel film called the "St. Louis Blues." And in 1931 she stopped working with Columbia Records. But even though she stopped working with the record company she still toured. And in 1933 she was contacted by a producer named John Hammond to make new recordings.


During her last years of her life she continued to perform. On September 26, 1937 Bessie Smith was driving to her next performance at Memphis, Tennessee with her close friend Richard Morgan when they side swiped a truck and lost control of the car. Bessie was thrown from the vehicle and badly injured. "The Empress" died in a hospital in Clarkdale, Tennessee. Bessie Smith died at the age of 43. Her funeral was held a week later in Philadelphia. Thousands attended and payed their respects to Bessie Smith. She was buried at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania.

Importance to American Culture

Bessie Smith was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. And during this renaissance many African American artist s performed for white people. During this time everything was still segregated. So for artists like Bessie to perform for white and black folk was astounding. Bessie Smith and others made it so African Americans could be famous and all races would now them and not just one.

Past to Present

I think that Bessie Smith relates really well to Beyonce. These two African American women are two very popular women of their time. Bessie Smith carved a way for African American women to perform and become famous. If you lived in the 1920's and somebody random came up and asked you who was Bessie Smith you would know because she was that famous around the country. And if a stranger asked you today who Beyonce was you would know that as well. If Bessie Smith never became famous many other people who were influenced by her might not be famous. These two African American women have blazed a path for more African American singers to become famous.

Bessie Smith's Hit Records

"Downhearted Blues" - 1923

"Gulf Coast Blues" - 1923

"Aggravatin' Papa" - 1923

"Baby Won't You Please Come Home" - 1923

"T'ain't Nobody's Biz-Ness If I Do" - 1923

"The Saint Louis Blues" - 1925

"Careless Love Blues" - 1925

"I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle" - 1925

"I Ain't Got Nobody" -1926

"Lost Your Head Blues" - 1926

"After You've Gone" - 1927

"Alexander's Ragtime Band" - 1927

"A Good Man Is Hard To Find" - 1928

"Empty Bed Blues" - 1928

"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" - 1929

Bessie Smith Video

This video down below has a summary of Bessie Smith's life except it leaves some of her early life out so go to the Early Life section for more information.
Bessie Smith - Mini Bio

Bessie Smith "Downhearted Blues"

This link below leads to an audio of one of Bessie Smith's first ever songs that she recorded. The "Downhearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues" were some of Bessie's most famous songs during her career.