She sang from the depths of her soul about oppression and heartache. She sang of the life she knew well, of poverty and desperation in an unfriendly South. Bessie Smith was arguably the greatest blues singer of her time, and was aptly crowned the Empress of the Blues.
As with many born into poverty during her time, there is no record of the birth of Elizabeth Smith, aka Bessie. She was born around 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Smith craved the spotlight and an escape from the poverty that surrounded her. As a teenager she left home to join minstrel shows, hopping onto the Rabbit Foot Minstrels around 1912 as a dancer. While she was dancing, she met the woman soon to be known as the “Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey. Rainey noticed something in the young Smith and took her under her wing during their time together.
Smith was a natural entertainer. With her dancing and singing, alongside her easy sense of humor, she absorbed the crowds she performed for. Wherever she went, audiences could not get enough of Bessie Smith. After settling for a time in Philadelphia, she unknowingly performed in front of Clarence Williams, a jazz pianist, composer, and producer for Columbia Records. Whether it was her vocals, her style, or her presence, Williams liked what he saw on stage and was eager to sign her.
In 1923, Smith made her first of 160 recordings with Columbia Records—“Down Hearted Blues.” Selling nearly 800,000 copies, it skyrocketed her to stardom and out of poverty. She starred in a small film, “St. Louis Blues,” and sang with the best in the business, including Williams, Porter Grainger, and Louis Armstrong. With her earnings, she bought a railcar for her troupe so she could travel in her very own tent show.
Unfortunately, as it is with many in show business, the pressures of the spotlight and the nature of the job proved to be too much to handle. Turning to alcohol as comfort, her marriage to Jack Gee crumbled. Some in the business said she became harder to work with, but around that time the music industry began changing once again, as it always will. The Great Depression impacted not only her sales but her fees on tour. Swing music was gaining popularity along with jazz, while blues quietly began to fade from the scene. But Smith was an overcomer, and her style was slowly evolving with the industry.
As anyone familiar with the blues knows, life ain’t fair. While driving near Clarksdale, Mississippi, early one morning with her beau, Richard Morgan, the car they were in hit the back of a truck. Her injuries in the wreck were fatal, despite the long dispelled rumor that a hospital refused treatment to her for being black. On the morning of September 26, 1937, Bessie Smith died shortly after the wreck. Seven thousand people came to mourn her at her funeral a week later.
It’s hard to say how far the Empress of the Blues would have gone had she not been taken too soon. With her confidence, humor, and overall appeal, maybe she would have changed with the times and continued singing from her soul about all that life had dealt. But it wasn’t to be. Just months before her own death to a heroin overdose, Janis Joplin had a headstone placed over the Empress’s grave, reading, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”
HEAR BESSIE SMITH SING “NOBODY KNOWS YOU WHEN YOU’RE DOWN AND OUT”
SEE MORE “BESSIE SMITH, EMPRESS OF THE BLUES” PHOTOS HERE