Considered by many to be the greatest blues singer of all time, Bessie Smith was born into poverty in Chester, Pennsylvania, on April 15, 1894. One of seven children, she was orphaned by the time she was eight and thereafter taken care of by her eldest sister, Viola. At about the same time, Bessie started singing on the street for the spare change of passersby. With the help of one of her brothers, in 1912 she was given an audition for a traveling show. Accepted into the troupe as a dancer, Smith was taken under the wing of a fellow performer, GERTRUDE “MA” RAINEY. Rainey helped guide Smith into the world of show business, while possibly introducing her to Rainey’s own style of rural blues singing. Smith and Rainey remained lifelong friends. Becoming a singer herself, Smith spent a decade traveling with African-American troupes and on the vaudeville circuit, performing mostly at tent shows and carnivals to a black audience. Her aggressive singing style soon attracted a large following. During this period, she married Earl Love in 1920; he died only two years later.
Smith made several unsuccessful attempts at recording her music before Columbia Records signed her to a contract in 1923. Her first record, “Down-hearted Blues,” sold more than 800,000 copies in six months. Over the next seven years, she made approximately 160 recordings for Columbia, becoming the best-selling African-American recording artist of her day. Her records proved so successful that Smith singlehandledly saved the fiedging record company from bankruptcy. Just before her recording career took off, Smith married Jack Gee, a night watchman, in 1923. From the beginning, the relationship was volatile, full of violent arguments that often ended with Gee beating his wife. Smith’s wild behavior, particularly her heavy drinking and frequent affairs with young men and women, infuriated Gee, though he never hesitated to accept the expensive gifts Smith often gave him to smooth things over.
As her records broadened her audience, Smith was in even more demand as a live performer. Billed as the Empress of the Blues, she took to wearing extravagant costumes while she sang songs about overty, loneliness, despair, and sex, some of which she wrote herself. In 1928, she was hired to appear in a Broadway musical, Pansy, but, despite critical praise for her, the show was slammed by reviewers. At the invitation of composer W. C. Handy, she was also featured in a 17-minute film in which she acted out her signature song, “St. Louis Blues.” While her professional life continued to thrive, Smith’s marriage was falling apart. She separated from Gee in 1930 after she discovered he had stolen money from her to finance a show for his mistress.
With the onset of the Great Depression, Smith’s career also started to falter. The national economic crisis left the recording industry in shambles, while at the same time, vaudeville was being replaced by radio, and the blues was losing much of its audience to swing music. Dropped by Columbia Records, Smith had to return to touring shows, though she also appeared in revues at New York’s Cotton Club and Apollo Theater. In 1933, jazz enthusiast John Hammond arranged for Smith to record some new songs, primarily intended for the European market. Although she tried to update her sound by experimenting with swing, the recordings enjoyed little success. In the fall of 1937, Smith was touring the South in the Broadway Rastas revue. After performing in Memphis, Tennessee, she and her lover Richard Morgan set off in the middle of the night of September 26, driving toward her next stop in Darling, Mississippi. On the dark road, Morgan accidentally drove Smith’s car into a slow-moving truck. Morgan was unharmed, but Smith’s body was crushed. Within minutes, a white doctor driving along the road stopped and gave Smith emergency care while they waited for an ambulance to arrive. The ambulance took her to a nearby black hospital, where within hours Smith died of her injuries.
In the aftermath of her sudden death, a myth grew around its circumstances. Smith was said to have been taken to a white hospital, denied admission because of her race, and then transported to a black hospital, by which time her condition was so bleak that she could not be saved. Ironically, Smith’s death inspired more news coverage in white papers than her career ever had. The mythic story of her death was also popularized in the play The Death of Bessie Smith (1960) by Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Edward Albee.
Although Bessie Smith’s life met an abrupt and tragic end, her music continued to infiuence performers as diverse as BILLIE HOLIDAY, MAHALIA JACKSON, ELLA FITZGERALD, and JANIS JOPLIN.In 1970, Joplin paid her own tribute to Smith by helping finance a tombstone for Smith’s previously unmarked grave in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania. It reads, “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.”
Albertson, Chris. Bessie: Empress of the Blues. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.
Brooks, Edward. The Bessie Smith Companion: A Critical and Detailed Appreciation of the Recordings. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982.
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Ladies Sing the Blues (1988). View Video, VHS, 1989.
Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings. Vols. 1–5. Sony/Columbia, CD set, 1991–96.
The Essential Bessie Smith. Sony/Columbia, CD set, 1997.