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Bessie Smith is born in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Bessie Smith is born in Chattanooga, Tennessee

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Despite the immense influence her records had on the shape and course of American popular music in the 20th century, the recorded legacy of Bessie Smith only captures part of her historical significance. Yes, her first recording, “Downhearted Blues” (1923) sold a then-astonishing 800,000 copies, and her subsequent Columbia Records releases throughout the 1920s earned her the title “Empress of the Blues” and influenced countless important musicians in the decades that followed. But by the time Bessie Smith made her first record, she was already a seasoned show-business veteran—an actress, dancer, singer, all-around force of nature and, eventually, the highest-paid African American performer in the world, by many accounts. A monumental figure in her own time and beyond, the great Bessie Smith was born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Orphaned at the age of nine and raised by her older sisters and brothers, Bessie Smith began singing and dancing for money on the streets of Chattanooga while she was still a young girl. She was 10 when her oldest brother, Clarence, ran off with a traveling vaudeville troupe, and she was 18 when that same troupe returned to Chattanooga in 1912 and took her on as a dancer. Eight years of showbiz training alongside that troupe’s legendary singer, Ma Rainey, isn’t what gave Bessie Smith her equally legendary voice, but it did turn her into an all-around performer ready to headline her own traveling show. Smith was becoming the top draw on the Black vaudeville circuit just as her first recordings reached the public, and though she received little or no royalties from any of her hit records, their popularity helped fill seats on the live tours that made her the wealthiest African American female performer of her day.

The Empress of the Blues was also known for her rather colorful personality and lifestyle. She once survived a stabbing after a performance in her hometown of Chattanooga, chasing after her attacker with the knife still in her chest, then getting herself to the hospital and still not missing the next night’s show. She had an extremely tumultuous off-and-on-again marriage, and was known to get into fistfights over lovers of both sexes.

Bessie Smith, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 as an “early influencer,” died at the age of 43 on September 26, 1937.

Bessie Smith life and biography

Date of birth : 1894-04-15
Date of death : 1937-09-26
Birthplace : Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-08-27
Credited as : Blues and jazz singer, called "The Empress of the Blues",

Bessie Smith, also known as Elizabeth Smith, Bessie Elizabeth Smith born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States - died September 26, 1937 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, United States was an African-American singer.

Bessie Smith was called "The Empress of the Blues". Her magnificent voice, sense of the dramatic, clarity of diction (you never missed a word of what she sang) and incomparable time and phrasing set her apart from the competition and made her appeal as much to jazz lovers as to lovers of the blues.

Born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith began singing for money on street corners and eventually rose to become the largest-selling recording artist of her day. So mesmerizing was her vocal style--reinforced by her underrated acting and comedic skills--that near-riots frequently errupted when she appeared. Those outside the theaters clamored to get in those inside refused to leave without hearing more of Smith. Twice she was instrumental in helping save Columbia Records from bankruptcy.

One of the numerous myths about Smith is that she was tutored (some versions claim kidnapped) by Ma Rainey, the prototype blues singer, and forced to tour with Rainey's show. In fact, Rainey didn't have her own show until after 1916, long after Smith had achieved independent success in a variety of minstrel and tent shows. Rainey and Smith did work together, however, and had established a friendship as early as 1912. No doubt Smith absorbed vocal ideas during her early association with the "Mother of the Blues."

Originally hired as a dancer, Smith rapidly polished her skills as a singer and often combined the two, weaving in a natural flair for comedy. From the beginning, communication with her audience was the hallmark of the young singer. Her voice was remarkable, filling the largest hall without amplification and reaching out to each listener in beautiful, earthy tones. In Jazz People, Dan Morgenstern quoted guitarist Danny Barker as saying: "Bessie Smith was a fabulous deal to watch. She was a large, pretty woman and she dominated the stage. You didn't turn your head when she went on. You just watched Bessie. If you had any church background like people who came from the [U.S.] South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people. She could bring about mass hypnotism."

When Mamie Smith (no relation to Bessie Smith) recorded the first vocal blues in 1920 and sold 100,000 copies in the first month, record executives discovered a new market and the "race record" was born. Shipped only to the South and selected areas of the North where blacks congregated, these recordings of black performers found an eager audience, a surprising segment of which was made up of white Southerners to whose ears the sounds of the blues were quite natural. Smith's first effective recording date, February 16, 1923, produced "Down-Hearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues" and featured piano accompaniment by Clarence Williams. The public bought an astounding 780,000 copies within six months.

Recorded With the Jazz Elite

Smith's contract paid her $125 per viable recording, with no provision for royalties. Frank Walker, who supervised all of Smith's recordings with Columbia through 1931, quickly negotiated new contracts calling first for 12 new recordings at $150 each, then 12 more at $200, and Smiths's fabulous recording career of 160 titles was successfully launched. On the brink of receivership in 1923, Columbia recovered largely through the sale of recordings by Eddie Cantor, Ted Lewis, Bert Williams, and its hottest selling artist, Bessie Smith. With her earnings, Smith was able to purchase a custom-designed railroad car for herself and her troupe in 1925. This luxury allowed her to circumvent some of the dispiriting effects of the racism found in both northern and southern states as she traveled with her own tent show or with the Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA) shows, commanding a weekly salary that peaked at $2,000.

Smith recorded with a variety of accompanists during her ten-year recording career, including some of the most famous names in jazz as well as some of the most obscure. Among the elite were pianists Fred Longshaw, Porter Grainger, and Fletcher Henderson saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet trombonist Charlie Green clarinetists Buster Bailey and Don Redman and cornetist Joe Smith. Perhaps her most empathetic backing came from Green and Smith, examples of which may be found on such songs as "The Yellow Dog Blues," "Empty Bed Blues," "Trombone Cholly," "Lost Your Head Blues," and "Young Woman's Blues." Smith and Louis Armstrong's first collaborations--1925's brilliant "St. Louis Blues" and "Cold in Hand Blues"--marked the end of the acoustic recording era, with Smith's first electrically recorded sides occuring on May 6, 1925. Other standouts with Armstrong include "Careless Love Blues," "Nashville Woman's Blues," and "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle." Piano giant James P. Johnson's accompaniment sparkled on 1927's "Preachin' the Blues" and "Back Water Blues" as well as on 1929's "He's Got Me Goin'," "Worn Out Papa Blues," and "You Don't Understand."

Zealous Fans Created Mob Scenes

Feeding on the popularity of her records, Smith's tour date schedule escalated. As she traveled from her home base of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Georgia, and New York City, adoring crowds greeted her at each stop. Extra police became the norm for controling crowd enthusiasm. What was the attraction? Critic and promoter John Hammond wrote in 1937: "Bessie Smith was the greatest artist American jazz ever produced in fact, I'm not sure that her art did not reach beyond the limits of the term `jazz.' She was one of those rare beings, a completely integrated artist capable of projecting her whole personality into music. She was blessed not only with great emotion but with a tremendous voice that could penetrate the inner recesses of the listener."

In Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller listed the components of Smith's vocal style: "a remarkable ear for and control of intonation in all its subtlest functions a perfectly centered, naturally produced voice (in her prime) an extreme sensitivity to word meaning and the sensory, almost physical, feeling of a word and, related to this, superb diction and what singers call projection. She was certainly the first singer on jazz records to value diction, not for itself, but as a vehicle for conveying emotional states. Perhaps even more remarkable was her pitch control. She handled this with such ease and naturalness that one is apt to take it for granted. Bessie's fine microtonal shadings. are all part of a personal, masterful technique of great subtlety, despite the frequently boisterous mood or language." Schuller further heralded Smith as "the first complete jazz singer" whose influence on Billie Holiday and a whole generation of jazz singers cannot be overestimated.

Lived and Sang the Blues

ln spite of her commercial success, Smith's personal life never strayed far from the blues theme. Her marriage to Jack Gee was stormy, punctuated by frequent fights and breakups despite their adoption of a son, Jack Gee, Jr., in 1926. Their nuptials ended in a bitter separation in 1929 Gee then attempted to keep the boy from Smith for years by moving him from one boarding home to another. Smith also battled liquor. Though able to abstain from drinking for considerable periods, Smith often indulged in binges that were infamous among her troupe and family. Equally well known to her intimates was Smith's bisexual promiscuity.

Smith's popularity as a recording artist crested around 1929, when the three-pronged fork of radio, talking pictures, and the Great Depression pitched the entire recording industry onto the critical list. Though her personal appearances continued at a brisk pace, the price she could demand dipped she was forced to sell her beloved railroad car, and the smaller towns she played housed theaters in which general quality and facilities were a burden. Even so she starred in a 1929 two-reel film, St. Louis Blues, a semi-autobiographical effort that received some exposure through 1932.

Smith's only appearance on New York's famed 52nd Street came on a cold Sunday afternoon in February of 1936 at the Famous Door, where she was backed by Bunny Berigan, Joe Bushkin, and other regulars of the house band. The impact of her singing that day has remained with those present for more than half a century. Much was made of the fact that Mildred Bailey wisely refused to follow Smith's performance. Furthermore, that single afternoon's performance gave rise to other possible Smith appearances with popular swing performers: John Hammond claimed a 1937 recording date teaming Smith and members of the Count Basieband was in the works, Lionel Hampton recalled Goodman's eagerness to record with Smith, and another film was planned. Smith's lean years were ending as the summer of 1937 approached. The recording industry's revival soared on the craziness of the early Swing Era, spearheaded by the success of Benny Goodman's band. Smith had proven adaptable in her repertoire and could certainly swing with the best of them moreover, blues singing was experiencing a revival in popular taste. Even Smith's personal life was on the upswing with the steady and loving influence of her companion, Richard Morgan.

On the morning of September 26, 1937, Smith and Morgan were driving from a Memphis performance to Darling, Mississippi, for the next day's show. Near Clarksdale, Mississippi, their car was involved in an accident fatal to Smith. A persistent rumor later developed that Smith bled to death because a white hospital refused to admit her. The myth originated in a 1937 Down Beat story written by John Hammond and was perpetuated by Edward Albee's 1960 play, The Death of Bessie Smith. Thirty-five years after Smith's death, author Chris Albertson finally dispelled the rumor. Albertson won a Grammy award for his booklet that accompanied the 1970 Columbia reissue of Smith's complete works--Columbia's second major reissue project. His deeper investigations resulted in the acclaimed 1972 biography, Bessie.

Albertson described Smith's funeral: "On Monday, October 4, 1937, Philadelphia witnessed one of the most spectacular funerals in its history. Bessie Smith, a black super-star of the previous decade--a `has been,' fatally injured on a dark Mississippi road eight days earlier--was given a send-off befitting the star she had never really ceased to be. When word of her death reached the black community, the body had to be moved [to another location] which more readily accommodated the estimated ten thousand admirers who filed past her bier on Sunday, October 3. The crowd outside was now seven thousand strong, and policemen were having a hard time holding it back. To those who had known Bessie in her better days, the sight was familiar."

* The Life and Times of Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

* At the time of Smith's birth:
* Grover Cleveland was president of the United States
* Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book
* Nicholas II succeeds Czar Alexander III to the Russian throne
* Sound recording began to be made on discs rather than cylinders
* At the time of Smith's death:
* Franklin D. Roosevelt was president of the United States
* George Gershwin died
* Walt Disney released the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
* San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge opened
* The times:
* 1898: Spanish-American War
* 1899-1902: Boer War
* 1909-1915: Futurism
* 1914-1918: World War I
* 1916-1922: Dada
* Smith's contemporaries:
* Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) U.S. novelist
* Elizabeth Cotten (1892-) U.S. folk musician
* Andres Segovia (1893-1987) Spanish classical musician
* Mary Pickford (1893-1979) U.S. actress
* Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) U.S. journalist
* Oscar Hammerstein (1895-1960) U.S. composer
* Selected world events:
* 1894: Audiences view world's first motion picture
* 1900: Jazz music originates in New Orleans
* 1910: National Urban League founded
* 1916: Jeannette Rankin becomes first U.S. Congresswoman
* 1920: World's first radio station goes on the air
* 1922: Harlem Renaissance begins
* 1928: Disney cartoon Steamboat Willie introduces Mickey Mouse
* 1933: Congress passes Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal

* The World's Greatest Blues Singer, Columbia GP 33, 1970.
* Any Woman's Blues, Columbia G 3O126, 1970.
* Empty Bed Blues, Columbia G 3O450, 1971.
* The Empress, Columbia G 30818, 1971.
* Nobody's Blues But Mine, Columbia, G 31093, 1971.

* Bessie Smith: 1925-1933 (includes "The Yellow Dog Blues," "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out"), Hermes, 1992.

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith is considered to be one of the most popular and successful blues singers of the 1920s and `30s. Known as the Empress of the Blues, Smith was born into poverty and orphaned at an early age. She is credited with recording more than 160 songs between 1923 and 1933. Smith performed on stage throughout the southern United States and recorded with such Jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Coleman Hawkins. Her singing talent has exerted a huge influence on popular American singers Mahalia Jackson, Janis Joplin and Norah Jones have all given her credit as their inspiration. Beginnings Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 15, 1894, one of six children. Her father, William Smith, was a laborer and part-time preacher. When Bessie was nine years old, both of her parents died, leaving her older sister, Viola, to care for the children. To survive, Bessie and her brother, Andrew, began to perform a musical act on the streets of Chattanooga. Bessie sang and her brother accompanied her on the guitar, often in front of the White Elephant Saloon. In 1904, after her eldest brother, Clarence, left home to tour with a small traveling theater company, Bessie decided to do the same and make a living as an entertainer. In 1912, when Clarence returned to Chattanooga, he persuaded the managers of his troupe, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give Bessie an audition. Consequently, she was hired as a dancer with the Moses Stokes Company, to perform in a show that included the Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey. It is thought that Rainey was instrumental in helping to develop Smith`s stage presence. An expanding career In 1930, Smith began to develop her own act at Atlanta`s ඙" Theater. By the early 1920s, her reputation as a singer had spread through the South and all along the Eastern Seaboard. In 1923, Smith signed with Columbia Records, and quickly rose to stardom as a main act on the Theater Owners` Booking Association theater circuit. Her most popular hit was "Down Hearted Blues," a song written and previously recorded by Alberta Hunter. Smith`s winters were spent working a heavy theater schedule and she spent the remainder of her time traveling in her own railroad car, doing tent tours. Eventually, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of the day and performed with numerous legends of the time, including Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, and Fletcher Henderson. The downside With the Great Depression and the introduction of “talkies” that ended much of the vaudeville era, Smith’s career began to wane. Though not as popular as in her heyday, Smith never ceased to perform. She continued to tour, and occasionally sang in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway musical, titled Pansy. That year, Smith made her only cinematic appearance, starring in a film based on W.C. Handy`s St. Louis Blues. Smith’s final recordings were made in 1933 for John Hammond and the Okeh label. Hammond was impressed after watching her perform in a Philadelphia nightclub. Smith was paid $37.50 for each of four recordings. Detectible in the recordings, Smith`s musical style was undergoing a change more in line with the sounds of the Swing Era. Smith was accompanied by a band that included Swing-Era musicians Frankie Newton and Chuck Berry. "Take Me For A Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot" are among her most popular recordings. After cutting those recordings, Smith returned to touring with some success, and added swing to her repertoire. An abrupt end On September 26, 1937, Smith was severely injured in a car accident while traveling from a concert in Memphis to Clarksdale, Mississippi, with her companion Richard Morgan. She was taken to Clarksdale`s segregated Afro-Hospital, where she died. In 1970, when singer Janis Joplin discovered that Smith`s grave was unmarked, she offered to pay for a stone. She shared the cost with Janita Green, who claimed she owed her successful, nonmusical career to Bessie Smith. According to Green, she was a little girl in a talent contest at the Standard Theatre where she was told by Smith after coming off stage, “You better stay in school, `cause you can`t sing!”

Bessie Smith

Acclaimed blues singer Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga and lived in a section of the city called Blue Goose Hollow at the foot of Cameron Hill. Her father, William Smith, a part-time Baptist minister, died when Smith was very young, and her mother died when she was nine. That same year, Smith began her career on Ninth Street in Chattanooga, singing and dancing for change to the accompaniment of her brother’s guitar.

In 1912 she joined the touring Rabbit Foot Minstrels, where Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the mother of all female blues singers, began to tutor her greatest pupil. Smith soon began touring on her own. In 1923 she signed a contract with Columbia Records and recorded “Down Hearted Blues,” which sold 800,000 copies at 75 cents each. It was Columbia’s first big hit and inspired the company to start its “Race Series,” aimed at the African American market.

Billed as “The Empress of the Blues,” Smith soon earned an annual income of $20,000 from her Columbia sales and performed for $1,500 to $2,500 per week on the African American circuit in the northeast and South. She sang with the best musicians of the day, including Louis Armstrong, who played trumpet on nine of her records. Smith wrote many of the songs she recorded, using the themes of poverty, love, and the temptation of alcohol. Her 156 known recordings include such classics as “Pig Foot and Bottle of Beer,” “Beale Street Blues,” “Beale Street Mama,” “Baby Doll,” “Standin’ in the Rain Blues,” “Midnight Steppers,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

Smith cut an imposing figure at 5𔄃″ and 200 pounds, and her performance attire of satin gowns, headdresses, long strands of pearls, and feather boas became a well-known trademark. In the days before electronic microphones, her booming voice could be heard outside the largest theaters. Her only performance in Chattanooga after achieving stardom produced a memorable story. After her performance at the Liberty Theatre, Smith attended a party given by a friend, where she knocked down a drunken admirer who was pestering her. The would-be admirer then stabbed Smith, who chased him for several blocks before collapsing. She was taken to the hospital but returned to the stage the next night.

Smith’s career declined in the 1930s due to a combination of the Great Depression, alcoholism, and the lack of radio exposure resulting from her suggestive song lyrics. In 1937 Smith was killed in a highway accident outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, while making a comeback tour of the South. Contemporary accounts that she died after being turned away from a “Whites-Only” hospital have proven unfounded, although she did have to wait for a “Blacks-Only” ambulance.

Smith was buried in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. In 1970 Janis Joplin, who credited her own success to her imitation of Smith’s style, contributed funds to the erection of a gravestone at the burial site. Inscribed on the headstone are the following words: “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.”


The 1900 census indicates that her family reported that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 15, 1894. [2] [3] The 1910 census gives her age as 16, [4] and a birth date of April 15, 1894 which appears on subsequent documents and was observed as her birthday by the Smith family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but later interviews with Smith's family and contemporaries contain no mention of them against her siblings.

She was the daughter of Laura and William Smith, a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a "minister of the gospel," in Moulton, Lawrence County, Alabama). He died while his daughter was too young to remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, her mother and a brother had also died. Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings. [5] Consequently, Bessie was unable to gain an education because her parents had died and her elder sister was taking care of her. [6]

Due to her parents' death and her poverty, Bessie experienced a "wretched childhood." [7] To earn money for their impoverished household, Bessie and her brother Andrew busked on the streets of Chattanooga. She sang and danced as he played the guitar. They often performed on "street corners for pennies," [7] and their habitual location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets, in the heart of the city's African-American community.

In 1904, her oldest brother Clarence left home and joined a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud. "That's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child." [8]

In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe and arranged an audition for his sister with the troupe managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher. Bessie was hired as a dancer rather than a vocalist since the company already included popular singer Ma Rainey. [7] Contemporary accounts indicate that, while Ma Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, she likely helped her develop a stage presence. [9] Smith eventually moved on to performing in chorus lines, making the "81" Theatre in Atlanta her home base. She also performed in shows on the black-owned Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuit and would become one of its major attractions.

Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theater. By 1920, she had established a reputation in the South and along the East Coast. At the time, sales of over 100,000 copies of "Crazy Blues," recorded for Okeh Records by the singer Mamie Smith (no relation), pointed to a new market. The recording industry had not directed its product to black people, but the success of the record led to a search for female blues singers.

Hoping to capitalize on this new market, Smith began her recording career in 1923. [10] Bessie Smith was signed to Columbia Records in 1923 by Frank Walker, a talent agent who had seen her perform years earlier. Her first session for Columbia was on February 15, 1923 it was engineered by Dan Hornsby. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia's regular A-series. When the company established a "race records" series, Smith's "Cemetery Blues" (September 26, 1923) was the first issued. Both sides of her first record, "Downhearted Blues" backed with "Gulf Coast Blues", were hits (an earlier recording of "Downhearted Blues" by its co-writer Alberta Hunter had previously been released by Paramount Records). [11]

As her popularity increased, Smith became a headliner on the Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s. [12] Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter and performing in tent shows the rest of the year, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day and began traveling in her own 72-foot-long railroad car. [13] [7] Columbia's publicity department nicknamed her "Queen of the Blues," but the national press soon upgraded her title to "Empress of the Blues." Smith's music stressed independence, fearlessness, and sexual freedom, implicitly arguing that working-class women did not have to alter their behavior to be worthy of respect. [14]

Despite her success, neither she nor her music was accepted in all circles. She once auditioned for Black Swan Records (W. E. B. Du Bois was on its board of directors) and was dismissed because she was considered too rough as she supposedly stopped singing to spit. [14] The businessmen involved with Black Swan Records were surprised when she became the most successful diva because her style was rougher and coarser than Mamie Smith. [15] Even her admirers—white and black—considered her a "rough" woman (i.e., working class or even "low class").

Smith had a strong contralto voice, [16] which recorded well from her first session, which was conducted when recordings were made acoustically. The advent of electrical recording made the power of her voice even more evident. Her first electrical recording was "Cake Walking Babies [From Home]", recorded on May 5, 1925. [17] Smith also benefited from the new technology of radio broadcasting, even on stations in the segregated South. For example, after giving a concert to a white-only audience at a theater in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 1923, she performed a late-night concert on station WMC, which was well received by the radio audience. [18] Musicians and composers like Danny Barker and Thomas Dorsey compared her presence and delivery to a preacher because of her ability to enrapture and move her audience. [19]

She made 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, notably Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, and Charlie Green. A number of Smith's recordings—such as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1927—quickly became among the best-selling records of their respective release years. [20] [21]

Broadway Edit

Smith's career was cut short by the Great Depression, which nearly put the recording industry out of business, and the advent of sound in film, which spelled the end of vaudeville. She never stopped performing, however. The days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, but Smith continued touring and occasionally sang in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway musical, Pansy. The play was a flop top critics said she was its only asset.

St. Louis Blues Edit

In November 1929, Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler, St. Louis Blues, based on composer W. C. Handy's song of the same name. In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, Queens, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, the pianist James P. Johnson and a string section—a musical environment radically different from that of any of her recordings.

Swing era Edit

In 1933, John Henry Hammond, who also mentored Billie Holiday, asked Smith to record four sides for Okeh (which had been acquired by Columbia Records in 1925). He claimed to have found her in semi-obscurity, "working as a hostess in a speakeasy on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia." [22] Smith worked at Art's Cafe on Ridge Avenue, but not as a hostess and not until the summer of 1936. In 1933, when she made the Okeh sides, she was still touring. Hammond was known for his selective memory and gratuitous embellishments. [23]

Smith was paid a non-royalty fee of $37.50 for each selection on these Okeh sides, which were her last recordings. Made on 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. The relatively modern accompaniment is notable. The band included such swing era musicians as the trombonist Jack Teagarden, the trumpeter Frankie Newton, the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, the pianist Buck Washington, the guitarist Bobby Johnson, and the bassist Billy Taylor. Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in the adjoining studio, dropped by and is barely audible on one selection. Hammond was not entirely pleased with the results, preferring to have Smith revisit her old blues sound. "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)", both written by Wesley Wilson, were among her most popular recordings. [5]

Automobile collision Edit

On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car crash on U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. [7] Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving, and misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Skid 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 vehicle. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.

The first person on the scene was a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation). In the early 1970s, Hugh Smith gave a detailed account of his experience to Bessie's biographer Chris Albertson. This is the most reliable eyewitness testimony about the events surrounding her death.

Arriving at the scene, Hugh Smith examined Smith, who was lying in the middle of the road with obviously severe injuries. He estimated she had lost about a half pint of blood, and immediately noted a major traumatic injury: her right arm was almost completely severed at the elbow. [24] He stated that this injury alone did not cause her death. Though the light was poor, he observed only minor head injuries. He attributed her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a sideswipe collision. [25]

Henry Broughton, a fishing partner of Dr. Smith's, helped him move Bessie Smith to the shoulder of the road. Dr. Smith dressed her arm injury with a clean handkerchief and asked Broughton to go to a house about 500 feet off the road to call an ambulance. By the time Broughton returned, about 25 minutes later, Bessie Smith was in shock.

Second collision Edit

Time passed with no sign of the ambulance, so Hugh Smith suggested that they take her into Clarksdale in his car. He and Broughton had almost finished clearing the back seat when they heard the sound of a car approaching at high speed. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the oncoming car failed to slow and plowed into his car at full speed. It sent his car careening into Bessie Smith's overturned Packard, completely wrecking it. The oncoming car ricocheted off Hugh Smith's car into the ditch on the right, barely missing Broughton and Bessie Smith. [26]

The young couple in the speeding car did sustain life-threatening injuries. Two ambulances then arrived from Clarksdale—one from the black hospital, summoned by Broughton, the second from the white hospital, acting on a report from the truck driver, who had not seen the crash victims.

Bessie Smith was taken to the G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After her death, an often repeated, but now discredited story emerged that she died because a whites-only hospital in Clarksdale refused to admit her. The jazz writer and producer John Hammond gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of DownBeat magazine. The circumstances of Smith's death and the rumor reported by Hammond formed the basis for Edward Albee's 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith. [7] [27]

"The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital you can forget that," Hugh Smith told Albertson. "Down in the Deep South Cotton Belt, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks." [28]

Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia a little over a week later, on October 4, 1937. Initially, her body was laid out at Upshur's funeral home. As word of her death spread through Philadelphia's black community, her 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. [29] 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. [30] Jack Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose. [31]

Unmarked grave Edit

Smith's grave remained unmarked until a tombstone was erected on August 7, 1970, paid for by the singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith. [32] Dory Previn wrote a song about Joplin and the tombstone, "Stone for Bessie Smith", for her album Mythical Kings and Iguanas. The Afro-American Hospital (now the Riverside Hotel) was the site of the dedication of the fourth historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail. [33]

In 1923, Smith was living in Philadelphia when she met Jack Gee, [7] a security guard, whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was being released. During the marriage, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own custom-built railroad car. [7] Their marriage was stormy with infidelity on both sides, including numerous female sex partners for Bessie. [34] Gee was impressed by the money, but never adjusted to show business life or to Smith's bisexuality. In 1929, when she learned of his affair with another singer, Gertrude Saunders, Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.

Smith later entered a common-law marriage with an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton's uncle. She stayed with him until her death. [5]

Songs like "Jail House Blues", "Work House Blues", "Prison Blues", "Sing Sing Prison Blues" and "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair" dealt critically with social issues of the day such as chain gangs, the convict lease system and capital punishment. "Poor Man's Blues" and "Washwoman's Blues" are considered by scholars to be an early form of African-American protest music. [35]

What becomes evident after listening to her music and studying her lyrics is that Smith emphasized and channeled a subculture within the African-American working class. Additionally, she incorporated commentary on social issues like poverty, intra-racial conflict, and female sexuality into her lyrics. Her lyrical sincerity and public behavior were not widely accepted as appropriate expressions for African-American women therefore, her work was often written off as distasteful or unseemly, rather than as an accurate representation of the African-American experience.

Smith's work challenged elitist norms by encouraging working-class women to embrace their right to drink, party, and satisfy their sexual needs as a means of coping with stress and dissatisfaction in their daily lives. Smith advocated for a wider vision of African-American womanhood beyond domesticity, piety, and conformity she sought empowerment and happiness through independence, sassiness, and sexual freedom. [14] Although Smith was a voice for many minority groups and one of the most gifted blues performers of her time, the themes in her music were precocious, which led to many believing that her work was undeserving of serious recognition.

There was no official national record chart in the US until 1936. The notional positions below have been formulated post facto by Joel Whitburn.

Year Single US
[36] [nb 1]
1923 "Downhearted Blues" 1
"Gulf Coast Blues" 5
"Aggravatin' Papa" 12
"Baby Won't You Please Come Home" 6
"T'ain't Nobody's Biz-Ness if I Do" 9
1925 "The St. Louis Blues" 3
"Careless Love Blues" 5
"I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle" 8
1926 "I Ain't Got Nobody" 8
"Lost Your Head Blues" 5
1927 "After You've Gone" 7
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" 17
1928 "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" 13
"Empty Bed Blues" 20
1929 "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" 15

78 RPM Singles — Columbia Records

A-3844 "Gulf Coast Blues" 1923-02-16
A-3844 "Down Hearted Blues" 1923-02-16
A-3877 "Aggravatin' Papa" 1923-04-11
A-3877 "Beale Street Mama" 1923-04-11
A-3888 "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" 1923-04-11
A-3888 "Oh Daddy Blues" 1923-04-11
A-3898 "Keeps on A Rainin All Time" 1923-02-16
A-3898 "Tain't Nobody's Bizness if I Do" 1923-04-26
A-3900 "Outside of That" 1923-04-30
A-3900 "Mama's Got the Blues" 1923-04-30
A-3936 "Bleeding Hearted Blues" 1923-06-14
A-3936 "Midnight Blues" 1923-06-15
A-3939 "Yodeling Blues" 1923-06-14
A-3939 "Lady Luck Blues" 1923-06-14
A-3942 "If You Don't, I Know Who Will" 1923-06-21
A-3942 "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Jelly Roll Like My Man" 1923-06-22
A-4001 "Jail House Blues" 1923-09-21
A-4001 "Graveyard Dream Blues" 1923-09-26
13000 D "Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time" 1923-10-24
13000 D "My Sweetie Went Away" 1923-10-24
13001 D "Cemetery Blues" 1923-09-26
13001 D "Any Woman's Blues" 1923-10-16
13005 D "St Louis Gal" 1923-09-24
13005 D "Sam Jones' Blues" 1923-09-24
13007 D "I'm Going Back to My Used to Be" 1923-10-04
13007 D "Far Away Blues" 1923-10-04
14000 D "Mistreatin' Daddy" 1923-12-04
14000 D "Chicago Bound Blues" 1923-12-04
14005 D "Frosty Mornin' Blues" 1924-01-08
14005 D "Easy Come Easy Go Blues" 1924-01-10
14010 D "Eavesdropper Blues" 1924-01-09
14010 D "Haunted House Blues" 1924-01-09
14018 D "Boweavil Blues" 1924-04-07
14018 D "Moonshine Blues" 1924-04-09
14020 D "Sorrowful Blues" 1924-04-04
14020 D "Rocking Chair Blues" 1924-04-04
14023 D "Frankie Blues" 1924-04-08
14023 D "Hateful Blues" 1924-04-08
14025 D "Pinchbacks, Take 'em Away" 1924-04-04
14025 D "Ticket Agent Easy Your Window Down" 1924-04-05
14031 D "Louisiana Low Down Blues" 1924-07-22
14031 D "Mountain Top Blues" 1924-07-22
14032 D "House Rent Blues" 1924-07-23
14032 D "Work House Blues" 1924-07-23
14037 D "Rainy Weather Blues" 1924-08-08
14037 D "Salt Water Blues" 1924-07-31
14042 D "Bye Bye Blues" 1924-09-26
14042 D "Weeping Willow Blues" 1924-09-26
14051 D "Dying Gambler's Blues" 1924-12-06
14051 D "Sing Sing Prison Blues" 1924-12-06
14052 D "Follow the Deal on Down" 1924-12-04
14052 D "Sinful Blues" 1924-11-11
14056 D "Reckless Blues" 1925-01-14
14056 D "Sobbin' Hearted Blues" 1925-01-14
14060 D "Love Me Daddy Blues" 1924-12-12
14060 D "Woman's Trouble Blues" 1924-12-12
14064 D "Cold in Hand Blues" 1925-01-14
14064 D "St Louis Blues" 1925-01-14
14075 D "Yellow Dog Blues" 1925-05-06
14075 D "Soft Pedal Blues" 1925-05-14
14079 D "Dixie Flyer Blues" 1925-05-15
14079 D "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon" 1925-01-14
14083 D "Careless Love" 1925-05-26
14083 D "He's Gone Blues" 1925-06-23
14090 D "I Ain't Goin' to Play No Second Fiddle" 1925-05-27
14090 D "Nashville Women's Blues" 1925-05-27
14095 D "I Ain't Got Nobody" 1925-08-19
14095 D "J.C.Holmes Blues" 1925-05-27
14098 D "My Man Blues" 1925-09-01
14098 D "Nobody's Blues but Mine" 1925-08-19
14109 D "Florida Bound Blues" 1925-11-17
14109 D "New Gulf Coast Blues" 1925-11-17
14115 D "I've Been Mistreated and I Don't Like It" 1925-11-18
14115 D "Red Mountain Blues" 1925-11-20
14123 D "Lonesome Desert Blues" 1925-12-09
14123 D "Golden Rule Blues" 1925-11-20
14129 D "What's the Matter Now?" 1926-03-05
14129 D "I Want Every Bit of It" 1926-03-05
14133 D "Jazzbo Brown from Memphis Town" 1926-03-18
14133 D "Squeeze Me" 1926-03-05
14137 D "Hard Driving Papa" 1926-05-40
14137 D "Money Blues" 1926-05-04
14147 D "Baby Doll" 1926-05-04
14147 D "Them Has Been Blues" 1926-03-05
14158 D "Lost Your Head Blues" 1926-05-04
14158 D "Gin House Blues" 1926-03-18
14172 D "One and Two Blues" 1926-10-26
14172 D "Honey Man Blues" 1926-10-25
14179 D "Hard Time Blues" 1926-10-25
14179 D "Young Woman's Blues" 1926-10-26
14195 D "Back Water Blues" 1927-02-17
14195 D "Preachin' the Blues" 1927-02-17
14197 D "Muddy Water" 1927-03-02
14197 D "After You've Gone" 1927-03-02
14209 D "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair" 1927-03-03
14209 D "Them's Graveyard Words" 1927-03-03
14219 D "There'll Be a Hot Time in Old Town Tonight" 1927-03-02
14219 D "Alexander's Ragtime Band" 1927-03-02
14232 D "Trombone Cholly" 1927-03-03
14232 D "Lock and Key Blues" 1927-04-01
14250 D "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" 1927-09-27
14250 D "Mean Old Bed Bug Blues" 1927-09-27
14260 D "Sweet Mistreater" 1927-04-01
14260 D "Homeless Blues" 1927-09-28
14273 D "Dyin' by The Hour" 1927-10-27
14273 D "Foolish Man Blues" 1927-10-27
14292 D "I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama" 1928-02-09
14292 D "Thinking Blues" 1928-02-09
14304 D "I'd Rather be Dead and Buried in my Grave" 1928-06-16
14304 D "Pickpocket Blues" 1928-02-09
14312 D "Empty Bed Blues Pt1" 1928-03-20
14312 D "Empty Bed Blues Pt2" 1928-03-20
14324 D "Put It Right Here" 1928-03-20
14324 D "Spider Man Blues" 1928-03-19
14338 D "It Won't Be You" 1928-02-12
14338 D "Standin' in The Rain Blues" 1928-02-12
14354 D "Devil's Gonna Git You" 1928-08-24
14354 D "Yes Indeed He Do" 1928-08-24
14375 D "Washwoman's Blues" 1928-08-24
14375 D "Please Help Me Get Him Off My Mind" 1928-08-24
14384 D "Me and My Gin" 1928-08-25
14384 D "Slow and Easy Man" 1928-08-24
14399 D "Poor Man's Blues" 1928-08-24
14399 D "You Ought to be Ashamed" 1928-08-24
14427 D "You've Got to Give Me Some" 1929-05-08
14427 D "I'm Wild About that Thing" 1929-05-08
14435 D "My Kitchen Man" 1929-05-08
14435 D "I've Got What It Takes" 1929-05-15
14451 D "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" 1929-05-15
14451 D "Take It Right Back" 1929-07-25
14464 D "It Makes My Love Come Down" 1929-08-20
14464 D "He's Got Me Goin'" 1929-08-20
14476 D "Dirty No Gooder's Blues" 1929-10-01
14476 D "Wasted Life Blues" 1929-10-01
14487 D "Don't Cry Baby" 1929-10-11
14487 D "You Don't Understand" 1929-10-11
14516 D "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues" 1930-03-27
14516 D "Keep It to Yourself" 1930-03-27
14527 D "Blue Spirit Blues" 1929-10-11
14527 D "Worn out Papa Blues" 1929-10-11
14538 D "Moan Mourners" 1930-06-09
14538 D "On Revival Day" 1930-06-09
14554 D "Hustlin' Dan" 1930-07-22
14554 D "Black Mountain Blues" 1930-07-22
14569 D "Hot Springs Blues" 1927-03-03
14569 D "Lookin' for My Man Blues" 1927-09-28
14611 D "In the House Blues" 1931-06-11
14611 D "Blue Blues" 1931-06-11
14634 D "Safety Mama" 1931-11-20
14634 D "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" 1931-11-20
14663 D "Long Old Road" 1931-06-11
14663 D "Shipwreck Blues" 1931-06-11

78 RPM Singles — Okeh Records

8945 "I'm Down in the Dumps" 1933-11-24
8945 "Do Your Duty" 1933-11-24
8949 "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" 1933-11-24
8949 "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)" 1933-11-24

Grammy Hall of Fame Edit

Three recordings by Smith were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, an award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance."

Bessie Smith: Grammy Hall of Fame Award [38]
Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1923 "Downhearted Blues" Blues (single) Columbia 2006
1925 "St. Louis Blues" Jazz (single) Columbia 1993
1928 "Empty Bed Blues" Blues (single) Columbia 1983

National Recording Registry Edit

In 2002, Smith's recording of "Downhearted Blues" was included in the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. [39] The board annually selects recordings that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." [40]

"Downhearted Blues" was included in the list of Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. It is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock 'n' roll. [41]

Inductions Edit

Year Inducted Category Notes
2008 Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York
1989 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
1989 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame "Early influences"
1981 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame
1980 Blues Hall of Fame

In 1984, Smith was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. [42]

U.S. postage stamp Edit

The U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp honoring Smith in 1994.

Technical faults in the majority of her original gramophone recordings (especially variations in recording speed, which raised or lowered the apparent pitch of her voice) misrepresented the "light and shade" of her phrasing, interpretation and delivery. They altered the apparent key of her performances (sometimes raised or lowered by as much as a semitone). The "center hole" in some of the master recordings had not been in the true middle of the master disc, so that there were wide variations in tone, pitch, key and phrasing, as commercially released records revolved around the spindle.

Given those historic limitations, the current digitally remastered versions of her work deliver significant improvements in the sound quality of Smith's performances. Some critics believe that the American Columbia Records compact disc releases are somewhat inferior to subsequent transfers made by the late John R. T. Davies for Frog Records. [43]

The 1948 short story "Blue Melody", by J. D. Salinger, and the 1959 play The Death of Bessie Smith, by Edward Albee, are based on Smith's life and death, but poetic license was taken by both authors for instance, Albee's play distorts the circumstances of her medical treatment, or lack of it, before her death, attributing it to racist medical practitioners. [44] The circumstances related by both Salinger and Albee were widely circulated until being debunked at a later date by Smith's biographer. [45] HBO released a movie about Smith, Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, on May 16, 2015. [46]

Released on Exodus Records in 1965, Hoyt Axton Sings Bessie Smith is a collection of Smith's songs performed by folk singer Hoyt Axton.

Each June, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga sponsors the Bessie Smith Strut as part of the city's Riverbend Festival. [47] [48]

She was the subject of a 1997 biography by Jackie Kay, reissued in February 2021 and featuring as Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4, read in an abridged version by the author. [49] [50]

The song “Bessie Smith” by The Band first appeared on The Basement Tapes in 1975, but probably dates from 1970 to 1971. Although musician Artie Traum recalls bumping into Rick Danko, the co-writer of the song in Woodstock in 1969 who sang a verse of “Going Down The Road to See Bessie” on the spot. [51]

Becoming the Empress of the Blues

Smith's career included long-term runs at major venues, playing to packed houses throughout the twenties in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville, and Memphis. She recorded and played gigs with a host of the most important blues and jazz artists of the day, including Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. Her1924 contract with TOBA made her the highest paid Black performer in the country.

By 1924, Smith was already known as the "Queen of the Blues" thanks to her clear, expressive voice. Then, Chicago's Defender newspaper crowned her the "Empress of the Blues Singers", beating out figures such as Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters for the title.



According to 1900 census, Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States in July, 1892. That date stands in contrast to April 15, 1894, which is the date indicated on her wedding certificate and confirmed by family members. The census also gives information regarding the size of Smith's family that conflicts with many biographies.

Early life

According to the 1870, 1880 and 1900 censuses, Bessie Smith was the thirteenth child of William Smith and the tenth (seventh or eighth to survive childhood) of Laura (Owens) Smith. These figures contradict recollections by family and school mates interviewed by Smith's biographer, Chris Albertson. In his book, Bessie, William Smith was a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a minister of the gospel, in Moulton, Lawrence, Alabama) who died before Bessie could remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, she had lost her mother as well, and her older sister Viola was left in charge of caring for her sisters and brothers.


As a way of earning money for her impoverished household, Bessie and her brother Andrew began performing on the streets of Chattanooga as a singer/guitarist duo their preferred location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of the city's African-American community.

In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, covertly left home by joining a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud, "that's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child." ΐ]

Bessie's turn came in 1912, when Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe and arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give her an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than singer, because the company also included Ma Rainey.


All contemporary accounts indicate that Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, but she probably helped her develop a stage presence. Α] Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theatre. By 1920 she had gained a good reputation in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.


In 1923, when sales figures for an Okeh recording by singer Mamie Smith (no relation) opened up a new market and had talent scouts looking for blues artists, Bessie Smith was signed by Columbia Records to initiate the company's new "race records" series.

Scoring a big hit with her first release, a coupling of "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Down Hearted Blues," which its composer, Alberta Hunter already had turned into a hit on the Paramount label, Bessie's career blossomed. She became a headliner on the black Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) theater circuit and was its top entertainer in the 1920s. Β] 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 elevated to "Empress".

She would make some 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, most notably Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, and Fletcher Henderson.


Smith's career was cut short by a combination of the Great Depression (which all but put the recording industry out of business) and the advent of "talkies", which spelled the end for vaudeville. She, however, never stopped performing. While the days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, Bessie continued touring and occasionally singing in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called Pansy, a musical in which, the top white critics agreed, she was the only asset.

In 1929, Bessie Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a one-reeler based on W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues". In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, NY, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, pianist James P. Johnson, and a string section [1] — a musical environment radically different from any found on her recordings.

Swing Era

In 1933, John Hammond saw Bessie perform in a small Philadelphia club and asked her to record four sides for the Okeh label (which had been acquired by Columbia).

These performances, for which Hammond paid her a non-royalty fee of $37.50 each, were recorded on 24 November 1933. They constitute Smith's final recordings. They are of particular interest because Smith was in the process of translating her blues artistry into something more apropos to the Swing Era, and this session gives us a hint of what was to come.

The accompanying band included such Swing Era musicians as trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, pianist Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, and bassist Billy Taylor.

Even Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in the adjoining studio, dropped by for an almost inaudible guest visit. Hammond was not pleased with the result, preferring to have Smith back in her old blues groove, but "Take Me For A Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot" (in which Goodman is part of the ensemble) remain among her most popular recordings.

What was Bessie Smith’s family like?

Dr. Scott: Bessie Smith was the youngest of 10 children born to William and Laura Smith. And they had been migrants after the Civil War, coming from northern Alabama into Chattanooga. Bessie's mother was a day laborer, a washer woman. And her father was a day laborer who worked in Chattanooga's iron foundries. They were hard-working, newly urban people in the 1890s.

She had the misfortune of being the youngest of parents who died when she was quite young. Her father dies when she's 6. Her mother dies when she's between 9 and 10. So, she ends up raised by her older sister Viola.

Bessie Smith Cultural Center's mission is to preserve and celebrate African American history and culture in Chattanooga

Photography Contributed by Bessie Smith Cultural Center

* Address: 200 East M.L. King Boulevard

* History: The Bessie Smith Cultural Center began as the Chattanooga African American Museum, founded in 1983 by 10 Chattanooga leaders: Roy Noel, Jacola Goodwin, Sallie Crenshaw, Agnes Locke, Leonard Wellington, Elizabeth Champion, Levi Moore, Rayburn Traughber, Catherine Kimble, and the Rev. Williams Banks. Located in the famed Ninth Street District, now M.L. King Boulevard, the museum's goal was to present the contributions of African Americans to the development of Chattanooga. In 1996, the newly renovated facility became the home of the Chattanooga African American Museum and the Bessie Smith Hall to pay homage to the late "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith. After a strategic planning process, the Chattanooga African American Museum/Bessie Smith Performance Hall was renamed the Bessie Smith Cultural Center (African American Museum & Performance Hall) in 2009. The center is affectionately referred to as "The Bessie."

* Mission: The mission of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is to preserve and celebrate African American history and culture in Chattanooga through art, education, research and entertainment.

* What's next: The center is taking advantage of the COVID-19-related shutdown to update its displays and remodel the main museum space. The finished work during phase one will include new artifacts, interactive virtual kiosks, a children's education corner and more information on African American history. Phase two will include renovations to the Vilma Fields Atrium to expand on the current Bessie Smith exhibit and to add exhibits on other well-known African American entertainers from Chattanooga. During the pandemic, the staff has been working to create partnerships among businesses and individuals to raise the $300,000 projected cost of phase one of the renovation.

1 Day

National Medal of Honor Heritage Center

The first Medal of Honor recipient was awarded to Private Jacob Parrott in 1863 for his role in the "Great Locomotive Chase" that ended outside Chattanooga. The Chattanooga area would soon become the place where 33 Medals of Honor were awarded. Hear the stories of those who made heroic acts by putting service over self at the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. Inside, you'll see interactive exhibits, hear oral histories and learn about Medal of Honor recipients' patriotism, courage, citizenship, integrity, sacrifice and commitment.

Ross's Landing

C arve out time to walk around Ross’s Landing, named after John Ross who was the leader of the Cherokee Nation. The renovated park includes a river pier, marina, natural amphitheatre and great views of the Tennessee River. Along Ross's Landing you can walk the Riverwalk which includes several significant Civil War sites. The Passage is an artistic tribute to the tribes of Chattanooga and the Walnut Street Walking Bridge, which was built in 1890, gives breathtaking views of the river and city.

Chattanooga’s Southside

Once the financial hub of the city, the abandoned warehouses and old buildings are now occupied by restaurants, shops and art galleries. The Terminal Brewhouse is located in what was once known as the Strong Building, built as a hotel for train travelers. It's said the building was also home to a number of speakeasies during Prohibition. Gourmet burger bar Urban Stack is housed in the former Southern Railway Baggage Building, one of the oldest buildings in the city. It was originally built in 1870 as a baggage room by the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad.

Bessie Smith

Born in Chattanooga to black parents, her great talent and determination earned her the title "Empress of the Blues." Death came in a tragic automobile accident in Clarksdale, Miss. In her memory, Columbia Records erected a tombstone with the epitaph
"The Greatest Blues Singer
In The World
Will Never Stop Singing."

Erected by Tennessee Historical Commission. (Marker Number 2A 75.)

Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African Americans &bull Arts, Letters, Music &bull Women. In addition, it is included in the Tennessee Historical Commission series list.

Location. 35° 2.478′ N, 85° 17.845′ W. Marker is in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in Hamilton County. Marker is on E ML King Blvd, on the right when traveling east. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Chattanooga TN 37403, United States of America. Touch for directions.

Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (approx. 0.3 miles away) S.W. Angle of Fort Wood (approx. 0.4 miles away) Walden Hospital (approx. 0.4 miles away) First Presbyterian Church (approx. 0.4 miles away) A Point in the Line of Works (approx. half a mile away)

Also see . . . PBS - JAZZ A Film By Ken Burns: Selected Artist Biography - Bessie Smith. (Submitted on November 27, 2008, by R. E. Smith of Nashville, Tennessee.)

Watch the video: Bessie Smith - Blues 1929 (May 2022).