Bessie Smith ~ Empress of the Blues
Bessie Smith would have been the first one to laugh at the title “Empress of the Blues.” Not because she didn’t think she deserved it, but because her childhood and upbringing had accustomed her not to expect much. She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on a date that is still not clear. Census records say she was born on April 15, 1894, but others say she was born in July of 1892. Perhaps nobody really knows at this time. Her father, a laborer and part-time Baptist minister, passed away before she was old enough to know him. And, by the time she was nine years old, she had also lost her mother and a brother. She and another brother survived by making music as street performers. She danced and sang, he played guitar. It was the start of something big! Bessie Smith became a respected, admired African American lady in a time when that was almost a miracle.
Most Popular Jazz and Blues Singer of Her Time
Over time, Bessie Smith became the most popular jazz and blues singer of her time in the 1920s and 30s. She was blessed with a powerful voice that recorded well even with early recording techniques, which were sketchy at best, becoming the highest paid black entertainer of her day. She made 160 recordings for Columbia Records, often accompanied by top black artists in their own right such as Louis Armstrong. Smith became a major influence on other jazz/blues vocalists who aspired to make a career in the field.
During that period of our history, African-Americans didn’t get into show business easily. Segregation was alive and well in America and there were all sorts of hurdles for a black entertainer to get through successfully, before becoming popular on the musical scene. Every show or recording session had segregation problems of the time to be ironed out before proceeding, depending on WHERE it was occurring. Nevertheless, this young woman’s talent had both black and white people flocking to her performances and buying her recordings. Bessie was unique, a musical sensation and everyone wanted to be able to say they’d heard her in person.
Blues and Jazz: The Forefront of American Music
Bessie Smith’s recordings are still available today. She was a one-of-a-kind, righteous woman, who knew her music. She sang it with heart and soul, and helped put blues and jazz in the forefront of American music. She was blessed with a strong, sensuous voice that some of the churches tried to silence, but fortunately, they did not succeed. Organized religion was against the kind of music Smith sang, because it was felt to be too blatantly sexual. But Bessie Smith knew that this music reached the heart of those who heard it, just as much as gospel music did, and that we are all people with the same kinds of feelings. She was right and her fame grew every day.
Have You Heard of Bessie Smith Before?
Play the video below to hear her voice.
Bessie Smith became a blues and jazz singer before anyone else even knew what those terms meant, and is now considered a legend in the industry. As a pioneer of the genre, she awoke a musically sleeping America with the sound of her fabulous voice, even on old recordings. Today those recordings are revered by jazz artists as being the epitome of what jazz is all about. Here’s one of my favorites below, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” which pretty much speaks to how life and people are treated.
In 1929, Bessie Smith starred in a film called St. Louis Blues, based on the great W.C. Handy’s composition of the same name. She was accompanied by a full orchestra, including stringed instruments. This was an experience she’d never had before on any of her recordings. She moved from Columbia Records to Okeh Records (a subsidiary of Columbia) in 1933, switching her mode of singing from blues to swing to fit the popular music genre of the day. Later, the great singer Billie Holliday (Lady Day) often referred to Bessie Smith’s songs as one of her inspirations to become a singer.
Here’s another favorite of mine, the title song from the movie, “St. Louis Blues,” just as Bessie sang it back in the day. With all the technical failings of recording at that time, the passion and feeling are still audible. Bessie knew music and knew her ability.
Great music and food
The Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee begins the second Friday in June and continues nightly until the third Saturday in June. In this street festival you may enjoy a wide variety of blues and nightclub bands, and lavish offerings of barbecued pork, beef, turkey and seafood. The Bessie Smith Strut, a special celebration of the Empress of the Blues, is held on each Monday night during the Festival’s run. Many musicians entertain the crowd at the Bessie Smith Strut, appropriate for Bessie’s kind of music. If you go, make sure to check it out and have the fun of participating in the celebration of Bessie’s life and music.
The Death of Blues Royalty
What Was Her Connection To Singer Janis Joplin?
Bessie Smith was fatally injured in a serious car accident on September 26, 1937. According to reports, her right arm was nearly severed from her body and she had lost about a pint of blood. But the doctor on the scene said that was not the cause of death. He believed she was in shock and had internal injuries due to the impact occurring nearly completely on her passenger side of the car. Bessie Smith’s funeral on October 4, 1937 was attended by approximately 7,000 mourners. Due to mismanagement of funds raised, her grave, near Philadelphia, remained without a headstone until August 7, 1970. At that time, singer Janis Joplin (a fan of Smith’s music) and a lady named Juanita Green who had done housework for Smith, paid for the stone and had it erected. The “Empress of the Blues” was gone at the young age of 43 or 45, depending on which birthdate is used. Like a bright comet that burns out swiftly, she left us much too soon.
This is the trailer of the HBO film “Bessie,” starring Queen Latifah as Bessie. Queen Latifah is excellent in the role, and the film was well received and praised. Own it on CD or watch it on Prime on Amazon.
Available here from Amazon
A Few Of Bessie Smith’s Honors
- 1981 Inducted into the Blues and Jazz Hall of Fame
- 1984 National Women’s Hall of Fame
- 1989 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame
- 1994 U.S. Postage Stamp
- 1996 The Bessie Smith Cultural Center In Chattanooga, TN