Bessie Smith

Empress of the Blues


"I've been poor and I've been rich, and rich is better."

~Bessie Smith

Biography of Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith was born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her father was a Baptist minister, but died soon after she was born. This left her mother to raise seven children. She was raised by her Aunt when her mother and two of her brothers died in 1906.

She met Ma Rainey while performing as a dancer and took her under her wing. She later lived in Philadelphia in 1923 and married a man named Jack Gee. She was discovered by a representative of Columbia Records, Clarence Williams. She signed a contract to make recordings, her song "Downhearted Blues," was very popular and sold about 800,000 copies. This sent her into the blues spotlight. By the end of the 1920s Smith was crowned "Empress of the blues."

The depression took a toll on Smith's career. Her and Jack Gee were separated in 1929, she was battling liquor at the time, and in 1931 she stopped working at Columbia. She still went on tour, she was contacted by John Hammond, a producer, to make new recordings. Smith still performed, sadly however on Spetember 26, 1937 Smith was on her way to Memphis, Tenessee to perform when the car crashed and she was thrown from the vehicle. She died when she was 43 and thousands came to her funeral to pay their respects.

The Audio link above is Bessie Smith's famous song, Downhearted Blues. It was one of her most popular and sold more than 800,000 copies. This song really boosted her into stardom

Contribution to American Culture

Bessie Smith was a very successful musician. By the time of her death, she was known around the world. Before the great depression, she was the highest paid African American Entertainer in the world. She was paid as much as 2,000 dollars a week to sing. Bessie Smith was one of the most famous african americans singers, popular with all races. She was born into poverty but turned into one of the most well known stars of the 1920's.

Ella Fitzgerald Compared to Bessie Smith

Ella Fitgerald was a very a talented Jazz musician that brought joy to many. Like Bessie Smith her mother died when she was young so she had to love with her aunt. Bessie Smith may be the Empress of Blues, but Ella Fitzgerald was reffered to as the First Lady of song. Ella Fitzgerald married a bass player in 1947, they adopted a child, but the marriage ended in 1952. Bessie Smith also separated from her husband but they did not have a child. In all, Fitzgerald recorded over 200 albums and around 2,000 songs.