Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894-September 26, 1937) : Empress of the Blues

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This is Bessie Smith. Bessie was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 14, 1894 in a family of seven children. Her father, a Baptist minister passed away shortly after she was born, leaving Bessie’s mother alone to raise her and her siblings. In 1906, Bessie lost her mother and two of her brothers, leaving her and the remaining siblings to be raised by an aunt. Bessie began performing on the streets singing, her brother playing the guitar for her. Her family lived in poverty and she dreamed of escaping through a career in show business. In 1912, at age 18 she join the Moss Stokes Company, a traveling minstrel show. Bessie’s brother Clarence was a comedian within the group (Clarence would later become her business manager). There she met Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey who became Bessie’s blues mentor. After a decade of gaining experience on stage, Bessie was signed in Columbia Records in 1923. Bessie’s rich, powerful, and soulful voice earned her the title “Empress of the Blues.”

Bat027 Smith, Bessie

Bessie married John Gee in 1923 settling down in Philadelphia, PA. Bessie’s first recording “Down Hearted Blues” sold 800,000 copies making her one of the major and highest paid Black singer in the game. Bessie’s style was described as raw, uncut country blues inspired by her Southern roots. Some of Bessie’s other well-known hits were “Backwater Blues,” Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” “St. Louis Blues,” “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle, ” and “Cold in Hand Blues” (in which she recorded with Jazz Legend Louis Armstrong), and Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”  Bessie worked with renowned jazz performers such as saxophonist Sidney Bechet, pianist Fletcher Henderson, and James P. Johnson. She recorded her hit “Backwater Blues” with Johnson.

Bessie was at the height of her career when the depression hit, causing her career to decline. She and Jack Gee separated and by the end of 1931 she stopped working with Columbia Records for good. Bessie continued to perform. In 1933 she was contacted by a producer, John Hammond and began recording again. Bessie reinvented herself and her repertoire for the Swing Era.

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On September 26, 1937, on the way to a show in Memphis, TN, Bessie passed away from injuries sustained in a car accident. She was 43. A week later, her funeral was held in Philadelphia in which thousands attended. She was buried in the city’s Mt. Lawn Cemetery. Since her death, Bessie’s music continued to influence and sell really well. She left behind a rich collection of 160 recordings cut between 1923 through 1933. She influenced many major female singers such as Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Billie Holliday. She has been immortalized within many works.

Journalist Chris Albertson wrote a bio of Bessie in 1972, which was expanded in 2003.  Bessie was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative  Bessie Smith stamp in 1994. Her song “downhearted Blues” received numerous awards, one being named one of the Songs of the Century by the National Endowment of the Arts. In 2002, “Downhearted Blues” was placed on the National Recording Preservation Board by the Library of Congress and placed in the Grammy hall of Fame in 2006.

An upcoming film executive produced by Queen Latifah is slated to air later this year. Queen Latifah is to portray Bessie and Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey.

I salute this AMAZING Her-story making sista!

Sources:

“Bessie Smith.” Bio.. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2015.

“Bessie Smith Biography.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, 2015. Web. 02 Mar. 2015.

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