April 15, 1894
September 26, 1937
The blues singer Bessie Smith, known as "Empress of the Blues," was the greatest woman singer of urban blues and, to many, the greatest of all blues singers. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the youngest of seven children of Laura and William Smith. Her father, a part-time Baptist preacher, died while she was a baby, and her early childhood, during which her mother and two brothers died, was spent in extreme poverty. Bessie and her brother Andrew earned coins on street corners with Bessie singing and dancing to the guitar playing of her brother.
The involvement of her favorite brother, Clarence, in the Moses Stokes Show was the impetus for Smith's departure from home in 1912. Having won local amateur shows, she was prepared for the move to vaudeville and tent shows, where her initial role was as a dancer. She came in contact with the singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (1886–1939), who was also with the Stokes troupe, but there is no evidence to support the legend that Rainey taught her how to sing the blues. They did develop a friendship, however, that lasted all of Smith's lifetime.
Smith's stint with Stokes ended in 1913, when she moved to Atlanta and established herself as a regular performer at the infamous Charles Bailey's 81 Theatre. By then the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) consortium was developing into a major force in the lives and careers of African-American entertainers, and managers and owners often made the lives of performers miserable through low pay, poor working and living conditions, and curfews. Bailey's reputation in this regard was notorious. Smith became one of his most popular singers, although she was paid only ten dollars a week.
Smith's singing was rough and unrefined, but she possessed a magnificent vocal style and commanding stage presence, which resulted in additional money in tips. With the 81 Theatre as a home base, Smith traveled on the TOBA circuit throughout the South and up and down the eastern seaboard. By 1918 she was part of a specialty act with Hazel Green, but she soon moved on to a solo act as a headliner.
Smith attracted a growing number of black followers in the rural South, as well as recent immigrants to northern urban ghettos who missed the down-home style and sound. She was too raw and vulgar, however, for the Tin Pan Alley black songwriters attempting to move into the lucrative world of phonograph recordings. White record company executives found Smith's (and Ma Rainey's) brand of blues too alien and unrefined to consider her for employment. As a result, Smith was not recorded until 1923, when the black buying public had already demonstrated that there was a market for blues songs, a market the record companies became eager to exploit.
Fortunately, Smith was recorded by the Columbia Gramophone Company, which had equipment and technology superior to any other manufacturer at the time. Columbia touted itself in black newspapers as having more "race" artists than other companies. Into this milieu came Bessie Smith singing "Down Hearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues," the former written (and previously performed) by Alberta Hunter (1895–1984), and the latter by Clarence Williams, a studio musician for Columbia who also played piano on both records. Sales were astronomical. Advertisements in the black newspapers reported her latest releases, and Smith was able to expand her touring range to include black theaters in all of the major northern cities. By 1924, she was the highest-paid African American in the country.
Smith sang with passion and authenticity about everyday problems, natural disasters, the horrors of the workhouse, abuse and violence, unfaithful lovers, and the longing for someone—anyone—to love. She performed these songs with a conviction and dramatic style that reflected the memory of her own suffering, and thus captured the mood of black people who had experienced pain and anguish, drawing listeners to her with empathy and intimacy. The poet Langston Hughes said Smith's blues were the essence of "sadness … not softened with tears, but hardened with laughter, the absurd, incongruous laughter of a sadness without even a god to appeal to."
Smith connected with her listeners in the same manner as the southern preacher: They were her flock who came seeking relief from the burdens of oppression, poverty, endless labor, injustice, alienation, loneliness, and love gone awry. She was their spiritual leader who sang away the pain by pulling it forth in a direct, honest manner, weaving the notes into a tapestry of moans, wails, and slides. She addressed the vagaries of city life and its mistreatment of women, the depletion of the little respect women tried to maintain. She sanctioned the power of women to be their own independent selves, to love freely, to drink and party and enjoy life to its fullest, to wail, scream, and lambaste anyone who overstepped boundaries in relationships—all of which characterized Smith's own spirit and life.
Columbia was grateful for an artist who filled its coffers and helped move it to supremacy in the recording industry. Smith recorded regularly for Columbia until 1929, producing 150 selections, of which at least two dozen were her own compositions. By the end of the 1920s, women blues singers were fading in popularity, largely because urban audiences were becoming more sophisticated. Smith appeared in an ill-fated Broadway show, Pansy, and received good reviews, but the show itself was weak and she left almost immediately. Her single film, St. Louis Blues (1929), immortalized her, although time and rough living had taken a toll on her voice and appearance by then.
Because of the Great Depression, the recording industry was in disarray by 1931. Columbia dismantled its race catalog and dropped Smith along with others. She had already begun to shift to popular ballads and swing tunes in an attempt to keep up with changing public taste. Okeh Records issued four of her selections in 1933. She altered her act and costumes in an attempt to appeal to club patrons, but she did not live to fulfill her hope of a new success with the emerging swing ensembles. On a tour of southern towns, Smith died in an automobile accident.
Barlow, William. Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
Kay, Jackie. Bessie Smith. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1997.
Manera, Alexandria. Bessie Smith. Chicago: Raintree, 2003.
daphne duval harrison (1996)
"Smith, Bessie." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 14, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-bessie
"Smith, Bessie." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved August 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-bessie