Today marks the birthdate of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, who was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15th, 1894 according to the 1910 census. (Note that Smith's D.O.B. has been contested, but this one is the commonly agreed on date.)
Life was tough for the young Smith, who would go on to great success and become widely known as the “Empress of the Blues” (initially she was dubbed "Queen of the Blues").
After both Smith's father and mother died by the time she was only nine, she and her siblings teamed up to earn money to make ends meet in their impoverished household and assist her older sister, Viola, who had taken over the role as parent for her and her brothers and sisters.
At a young age music became a way to make money. Around the turn of the century, along with her brother Andrew, Bessie would do a song and dance routine on the streets of Chattanooga for spare change. Andrew played guitar while she sang and danced.
By age 18 Bessie Smith joined the Stokes troupe, a company that also included Ma Rainey, as a dancer initially. Smith's singing career would later be given a chance to blossom via stage productions and when Columbia Records began releasing her recordings in the early 1920's.
She would make over 150 recordings for the label before splitting from them in 1931. Smith soon beacame a major star and was the highest paid black performer in her heyday, when she became the biggest headliner on the black Theater Owners Booking Association circuit. Her stage shows, during which she was known to wear a variety of eye-catching costumes, were legendary. Smith's signing with Columbia Records in 1923 coincided with the label expanding its target audience to include blacks by forming a "race records" series and Smith's earlist hits for the label included "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Downhearted Blues."
Despite all of her success, Smith's career took a dive due in major part to the Great Depression and the advent of the "talkies," which killed off the Vaudville era, and was just beginning to make a career comeback in the second half of the 1930's when, at age 43, she tragically died following a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi on September 26th in 1937. The Empress of the Blues' funeral, held in Philadelphia on October 4, 1937, reportedly attracted about seven thousand mourners.
Even though her music dates back to almost a full century ago, Smith's voice is so moving and touching because of the sheer soul and pure emotion that her beautiful voice carries, often filled with tales of pain and heartbreak, and her influence has been felt continually throughout the decades since her death. Artists directly influenced by Smith include most notably Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Janis Joplin, who was so inspired by and indebted to the singer that in 1970 she, along with Juanita Green -- an old employee of the Smith family -- pitched in to buy Bessie Smith a proper headstone for her grave since it had gone without one for over 3 decades. The epitaph Joplin and Green chose reads: "The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing."
At Amoeba Music you will find many different Bessie Smith recordings to choose from, including the two CD, 36 track The Essential Bessie Smith (Columbia/Legacy). If you don't already own any Bessie Smith this is a good place to start.
The above bio cliip of Smith is culled from her only big screen appearance, which she also starred in -- the1929 film St. Louis Blues, based on W. C. Handy's song of the same name. Smith sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra.
Bessie Smith "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" (feat. Clarence Williams, piano) - 1923