23 November 2016

Bessie Smith

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Empress of the Blues

Bessie Smith (15 April 1894 - 26 September 1937) was born in Tennessee and orphaned at a young age. Whilst under the care of her older sister she contributed to the household by doing street performances with one of her brothers. Another brother introduced her to a traveling troupe in which Ma Rainey was the singer and Bessie joined as a dancer. Ma Rainey was influential to Bessie's stage presence.

After the success of Mamie Smith, Bessie began recording in 1923 and went on to become a even greater success and ended up being the best paid black entertainer of her time. She worked with many famous musicians of the time, among them Louis Armstrong.

During her time as a star she was married to a fellow male musician, whom she eventually separated from, however she was bisexual and had several affairs with women as well.

Bessie Smith’s career took a turn for the worse when the Depression hit, but eventually started to record swing music to keep up with times. Billie Holliday was a huge admirer of Bessie and recorded her first record in the same studio Bessie Smith had used three days prior.

In 1937 Bessie Smith was in a car accident with her long time lover Richard Morgan. She never regained consciousness and died the next day in hospital.

Despite 7,000 mourners attending her funeral, Bessie Smith's grave remained unmarked until the summer of 1970, when the young singer Janis Joplin had a headstone made - it reads, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”