Bessie Smith

Empress of the Blues

Introducing..... Bessie Smith!

“Gee, but it’s so hard to love someone when that someone don’t love you. I’m so disgusted, heartbroken, too. I got those downhearted blues,” That’s from Bessie Smith’s Down Hearted Blues, a song that sold more than 780,000 copies. If I had lived in her time, and if I could have, I would have bought that record, too. I’ve heard this great woman sing, and she is amazing. Without talented and sassy people like Bessie Smith, the world might not be the same.

Early Life

Elizabeth “Bessie” Smith was born on April 15, 1894 in a bustling town called Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was one of seven children, but her mother, father, and two of her brothers died by the time she was eight or nine. She was raised by an unmarried aunt and her older sister, Viola. Realizing she had an unusual voice, Smith began to sing on the streets for nickels and dimes. She was accompanied by her younger brother Andrew, who played guitar. Smith had little or no education, but that didn’t stop her from chasing her dreams and using her voice. When she was 9, Smith got a stage debut in a local theater. Little did she know that that would be only the start of her career.

Adult Life

When Smith was 18, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey “discovered” her and invited Smith to join her traveling group. But soon, Smith’s music became so popular she could perform on her own. In 1923 she released her first record, Down Hearted Blues. As a well-known and well-liked artist, Smith recorded more than 150 albums, some of which sold 100,000 copies in a week. Smith lived all over, but Philadelphia was the place she chose to live in most of the time. At 29, on June 7, 1923, Smith met and fell in love with Jack Gee. They were soon married but their relationship was rocky, so in 1929, Smith ended their relationship. However, they didn’t use a divorce, which meant that when Smith “married” Richard Morgan, it was not proper. She did adopt a 6 year old boy whom she named Jack Gee Jr. within the two relationships. Smith’s life was like a highway with lots of bumps, but she chose to make it that way.

Her Greatest Accomplishments

Bessie Smith had many accomplishments, too many to count. I believe her greatest accomplishment was being one of the most famous african american blues singer of her time. She got into Ma Rainey’s traveling group, and Rainey was incredibly popular around that time. Did you know that at one point, Smith saved Columbia Records just by selling a hit record? Also, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. She was even accompanied by some amazing blues and jazz artists, which is very cool. Ever heard of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Green? Smith was great because she was talented, sassy, brave. She once got fired from a job for saying, “Hold on! Let me spit!”. Sounds like courage and attitude to me! She had a strong personality along with a strong voice - and that’s a good thing. Like most celebrities, Bessie was idolized by some. Bessie Smith changed the world by being such a well known african american singer.

People Will Remember Her

Bessie Smith died on September 26, 1937. It was a tragic and careless car accident. With husband Richard Morgan, Smith was driving along the U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi. She had her arm out the window - and they got too close to a truck. Smith’s arm was nearly severed at the elbow. She also had minor head injuries. It is said that when a doctor arrived, he estimated she had lost half a pint of blood. It is also said that her journey to a hospital took longer than it could have because one of the nearest refused to accept her, saying it was a hospital for white people only. They did not make it in time. Even now, years later, we remember Bessie Smith for her almost magical talent. Though she no longer lives, the world will never forget its Empress of the Blues.


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