(b.April 15, 1894?, Chattanooga, Tenn.-d.Sept. 26, 1937, Clarksdale, Miss.)
The prestigious title of the "Empress of the Blues" eternally rests on the graceful shoulders of Bessie Smith, a pioneer in the vocal side of the blues music genre. With her distinctively potent voice and eye-catching delivery and appearance, she set trends in music entertainment that live on along with her own recordings.
Bessie Smith was born into a poverty stricken black family in the segregated south. The precise date of her birth is unknown, and while most accounts list 1894, others state 1898 or 1900; however, April 15 remains the same as her birthday. She began singing at the age of nine on the street corners of Chattanooga and in 1912 joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels traveling show led by the legendary blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, to whom Bessie would become a protégé.
After performing in saloons and small theaters throughout the south, Bessie signed with Columbia Records and scored a major hit with the records "Down Hearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues." Her more than 150 recordings that followed, some of which sold 100,000 copies in a week, propelled her to fame and immortality. She toured regularly in 1920s, particularly in vaudeville, often with such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher "Smack" Henderson, James P. Johnson, and Benny Goodman. Although she primarily performed to black audiences, Bessie did find popularity among whites as well. Among her other successful songs were "Jealous Hearted Blues," "Jailhouse Blues," "Cold in Hand Blues," and a version of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Most of her songs had themes of poverty, oppression, and unrequited love, that her rich voice was perfect to deliver the mournfulness of and strike a chord in the heart of the listener.
As well as singing Bessie, with her tall, upright, and strikingly beautiful features, was effective at acting, appearing in the 1929 motion picture short St. Louis Blues. It was unfortunate that at this time her career fell into a sharp decline. This was mostly the result of changing trends in music, however, Bessie's long-standing alcoholism played its part as as record producers found her very difficult to work with. Nonetheless, her singing ability remained as exceptional as always. This was exemplified in a recording session (her last) in 1933 during which she created another signature song entitled "Gimme a Pigfoot." Then in 1935 she appeared to great acclaim at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Indeed, Bessie Smith was in the process of a comeback at the time of her tragic death at age forty-three. On Sept. 26, 1937, she was critically injured while on her way to a singing engagement, when the car being driven by her boyfriend Richard Morgan in which she was a passenger crashed into a truck on a road in Mississippi. According to legend segregation led to her death when a white hospital first refused her admission and by the time she arrived at a black hospital in Clarksdale, Miss., it was too late to save her and she bled to death. Although much has been said to dispute this claim, it is not implausible considering that this was the segregated south. The playwright Edward Albee dramatized the account in his 1960 play The Death of Bessie Smith.
Because she had not yet recaptured her former glory, Bessie Smith basically died a has-been. While seven thousand people attended her funeral, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia.
However, in the decades that followed her fame quadrupled along with her record sales, as her music was continually rediscovered. Her popularity among white listeners in particular was monumental in comparison to her lifetime. Many later musicians were influenced by her work, such as singer Janis Joplin, through whose efforts Bessie Smith finally received a headstone. The music world owed her that-and much more.
PORTRAYED BY: Madelyn Sanders
Presented by Lakewood Public Library