Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith is considered to be one of the most popular and successful blues singers of the 1920s and ‘30s. She is credited with recording more than 160 songs from 1923 to 1933, and her talent inspired a number of popular American singers.
Smith was born in Chattanooga on April 15, 1894. One of seven children, she was born into poverty and was orphaned at an early age. To survive, Smith and her brother began performing a musical act on the streets of Chattanooga.
In 1904, Smith followed in her eldest brother’s footsteps and left home to tour with a small traveling theater company. In 1912, when her brother returned to Chattanooga, he persuaded the managers of his troupe, the Moses Stokes Company, to give Smith an audition.
She was hired shortly thereafter as a dancer on a show featuring Ma Rainy, a mentor and influence to Smith’s style. Smith stayed with the show until 1915, when she joined the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) and gained her own following.
In 1923, Smith signed with Columbia Records and quickly rose to stardom as a main act on the T.O.B.A. theater circuit. Her most popular hit was “Down Hearted Blues,” a song written and previously recorded by American blues singer and songwriter Alberta Hunter.
Smith became the highest-paid African-American entertainer and performed with many entertainment legends, including Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green and Fletcher Henderson.
Despite the Great Depression and the introduction of “talkies” that ended much of the vaudeville era, Smith continued to tour and occasionally sang in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway musical titled “Pansy” and made her cinematic debut in “St. Louis Blues.”
By 1930, Smith’s reputation as a singer had spread beyond the South and reached all along the Eastern Seaboard.
In 1933, Smith revamped her musical style to reflect changes more in line with the sounds of the Swing Era. After cutting several records, Smith returned to touring, and added swing to her extended repertoire.
On Sept. 26, 1937, Smith was severely injured in a car accident while traveling from a concert in Memphis to Clarksdale, Miss., with her companion, Richard Morgan. She was taken to Clarksdale’s G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where she later died.
In 1970, when singer Janis Joplin discovered that Smith’s grave was unmarked, she shared the cost of a stone with North Philadelphia, Pa., NAACP President Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith.