Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer.
Sometimes referred to as The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and, along with Louis Armstrong, a major influence on subsequent jazz vocalists.
1936 photograph by Carl Van Vechten
The 1900 census indicates that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July 1892. However, the 1910 census recorded her birthday as April 15, 1894, a date that appears on all subsequent documents and was observed by the entire Smith family. Census data also contributes to controversy about the size of her family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, while later interviews with Smith’s family and contemporaries did not include these individuals among her siblings.
She had a stormy marriage to Jack Gee, who never got used to the music business, and later to Richard Morgan, an old friend.
In 1920, sales figures for “Crazy Blues,” an Okeh Records recording by singer Mamie Smith (no relation) pointed to a new market. The recording industry had not directed its product to blacks, but the success of the record led to a search for female blues singers. Bessie Smith was signed by Columbia Records in 1923 and her first session for Columbia was February 15, 1923. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia’s regular A- series; when the label decided to establish a “race records” series, Smith’s “Cemetery Blues” (September 26, 1923) was the first issued.
She scored a big hit with her first release, a coupling of “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Downhearted Blues“, which its composer Alberta Hunterhad already turned into a hit on the Paramount label. Smith became a headliner on the black T.O.B.A. circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter months and doing tent tours the rest of the year (eventually traveling in her own railroad car), Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Columbia nicknamed her “Queen of the Blues,” but a PR-minded press soon upgraded her title to “Empress”.
After You’ve Gone (1927)
As the great depression came, it hit Bessie as it hit most recording artists.
The arrival of the “talkies” also more or less killed off Vaudeville.
Bessie continued touring though.
“Nobody knows you when you’re down and out” 1929
In 1929 she appeared in the movie St Louis Blues, directed by Dudley Murphy.
The film was based on the song of the same name by W.C.Handy.
In 1933 she was asked by John Hammond to sing on some recordings for Okeh.
Bessie Smith was paid a non-royalty fee of $37.50 for each selection and these Okeh sides, which were her last recordings. Made November 24, 1933, they serve as a hint of the transformation she made in her performances as she shifted her blues artistry into something that fit the “swing era“.
On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving and, probably mesmerized by the long stretch of straight road, misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him.
Tire marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith’s old Packard. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact.
Smith’s funeral was held in Philadelphia on Monday, October 4, 1937. Her body was originally laid out at Upshur’s funeral home. As word of her death spread through Philadelphia’s black community, the body had to be moved to the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday, October 3. Contemporary newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearby Sharon Hill. Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.
The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970, when a tombstone—paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith—was erected.