Bessie Smith

The greatest female blues singer of all time, with a passionate voice and thundering delivery.

b. April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, TN, d. September 26, 1937 in Clarksdale, MS. In her childhood, Smith sang on street corners before joining a touring black minstrel show as a dancer. Also in the show was Ma Rainey, and before long the young newcomer was also singing the blues. The older woman encouraged Smith, despite the fact that even at this early stage in her career her powerful voice was clearly heralding a major talent that would one day surpass Rainey. By 1920 Smith was headlining a touring show and was well on the way to becoming the finest singer of the blues the USA would ever hear. Despite changing fashions in music in the northern cities of New York and Chicago, Smith was a success wherever she performed and earned her billing as the Empress of the Blues. For all her successes elsewhere, however, her real empire was in the south, where she played theatres on the Theatre Owners’ Booking Association circuit, packing in the crowds for every show. Although she was not among the first blues singers to make records, when she did so they sold in huge numbers, rescuing more than one recording company from the brink of bankruptcy. The records, on which her accompanists included Louis Armstrong and Joe Smith, consolidated her position as the leading blues singer of her generation, but here too, fashion dictated a shift in attitude.

By 1928 her recording career was effectively over, and personal problems, which stemmed from drink and poor judgement over her male companions, helped to begin a drift from centre stage. It was during this fallow period that she made her only film appearance, in St. Louis Blues (1929), with James P. Johnson and members of the recently disbanded Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. She continued to perform, however, still attracting a faithful, if diminished, following. In 1933 John Hammond Jnr. organized a record date, on which she was accompanied by, among others, Jack Teagarden and Coleman Hawkins, which proved to be her last. The following year she was in a highly successful touring show and in 1935 appeared at the Apollo Theatre in New York to great acclaim. In her private life she had a new companion, a showbiz-loving bootlegger named Richard Morgan, an uncle of Lionel Hampton, who brought her new stability. With the growing reawakening of interest in the earlier traditions of American music and another film planned, this should have been the moment for Smith’s career to revive, but on September 26, 1937 she was fatally injured while being driven by Morgan to an engagement in Mississippi.

Smith’s recordings range from uproarious vaudeville songs to slow blues; to the former she brought a reflection of her own frequently bawdy lifestyle, while the latter are invariably imbued with deeply felt emotions. All are delivered in a rich contralto matched by a majestic delivery. Every one of her recordings is worthy of attention, but especially important to an understanding of the blues and Smith’s paramount position in its history are those made with Armstrong and Smith. Even in such stellar company, however, it is the singer who holds the attention. She was always in complete control, customarily refusing to work with a drummer and determinedly setting her own, usually slow, tempos. Indeed, on some recordings her entrance, after an opening chorus by her accompanists, noticeably slows the tempo. On her final record session she makes a gesture towards compromise by recording with musicians attuned to the imminent swing era, but she is still in charge. Her influence is impossible to measure; so many of her contemporaries drew from her that almost all subsequent singers in the blues field and in some areas of jazz have stylistic links with the ‘Empress of the Blues’. Many years after her death she was still the subject of plays and books, several of which perpetuated the myth that her death was a result of racial prejudice, or used her to promulgate views not necessarily relevant to the singer’s life. Fortunately, one of the books, Chris Albertson’s Bessie, is an immaculately researched and well-written account of the life, times and music of one of the greatest figures in the history of American music.

Bessie Smith Biography by Scott Yanow

The first major blues and jazz singer on record and one of the most powerful of all time, Bessie Smith rightly earned the title of "The Empress of the Blues." Even on her first records in 1923, her passionate voice overcame the primitive recording quality of the day and still communicates easily to today's listeners (which is not true of any other singer from that early period). At a time when the blues were in and most vocalists (particularly vaudevillians) were being dubbed "blues singers," Bessie Smith simply had no competition.

Back in 1912, Bessie Smith sang in the same show as Ma Rainey, who took her under her wing and coached her. Although Rainey would achieve a measure of fame throughout her career, she was soon surpassed by her protégée. In 1920, Smith had her own show in Atlantic City and, in 1923, she moved to New York. She was soon signed by Columbia and her first recording (Alberta Hunter's "Downhearted Blues") made her famous. Bessie Smith worked and recorded steadily throughout the decade, using many top musicians as sidemen on sessions including Louis Armstrong, Joe Smith (her favorite cornetist), James P. Johnson, and Charlie Green. Her summer tent show Harlem Frolics was a big success during 1925-1927, and Mississippi Days in 1928 kept the momentum going.

However, by 1929 the blues were out of fashion and Bessie Smith's career was declining despite being at the peak of her powers (and still only 35). She appeared in St. Louis Blues that year (a low-budget movie short that contains the only footage of her), but her hit recording of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" predicted her leaner Depression years. Although she was dropped by Columbia in 1931 and made her final recordings on a four-song session in 1933, Bessie Smith kept on working. She played the Apollo in 1935 and substituted for Billie Holiday in the show Stars Over Broadway. The chances are very good that she would have made a comeback, starting with a Carnegie Hall appearance at John Hammond's upcoming From Spirituals to Swing concert, but she was killed in a car crash in Mississippi. Columbia has reissued all of her recordings, first in five two-LP sets and more recently on five two-CD box sets that also contain her five alternate takes, the soundtrack of St. Louis Blues, and an interview with her niece Ruby Smith. "The Empress of the Blues," based on her recordings, will never have to abdicate her throne.