Bessie Smith (15 April, 1894* – September 26, 1937) was the most popular American female blues singer of the 1920s and '30s,. Smith is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era, and along with Louis Armstrong, a major influence on subsequent jazz vocalists. (*Her date of birth is uncertain and is variously given as 1894-6, 1898, and 1900.I have opted for the most common date given.)
Bessie Smith earned the title of “Empress of the Blues” by virtue of her forceful vocal delivery and command of the genre. Her singing displayed a soulfully phrased, boldly delivered and nearly definitive grasp of the blues. In addition, she was an all-around entertainer who danced, acted and performed comedy routines with her touring company. She was the highest-paid black performer of her day and arguably reached a level of success greater than that of any African-American entertainer before her.
Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1894. Like many of her generation, she dreamed of escaping a life of poverty by way of show business. As a teenager she joined a travelling minstrel show, the Moss Stokes Company. Her brother Clarence was a comedian with the troupe, and Smith befriended another member, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (a.k.a. the “Mother of the Blues"), who served as something of a blues mentor. After a decade’s seasoning on the stage, Smith was signed to Columbia Records in 1923.
Her first recording - “Down Hearted Blues” b/w “Gulf Coast Blues” - sold an estimated 800,000 copies, firmly establishing her as a major figure in the black record market. Smith sang raw, uncut country blues inspired by life in the South, in which everyday experiences were related in plainspoken language - not unlike the rap music that would emerge more than half a century later. She was ahead of her time in another sense as well. In the words of biographer Chris Albertson, “Bessie had a wonderful way of turning adversity into triumph, and many of her songs are the tales of liberated women.”
Smith was unquestionably the greatest of the vaudeville blues singers and brought the emotional intensity, personal involvement, and expression of blues singing into the jazz repertory with unexcelled artistry. Baby Doll and After You've Gone, both made with Joe Smith, and Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out, with Ed Allen on cornet, illustrate her capacity for sensitive interpretation of popular songs. Her broad phrasing, fine intonation, blue-note inflections, and wide, expressive range made hers the measure of jazz-blues singing in the 1920s.
She made almost 200 recordings, of which her remarkable duets with Armstrong are among her best. Although she excelled in the performance of slow blues, she also recorded vigorous versions of jazz standards. Joe Smith was her preferred accompanist, but possibly her finest recording (and certainly the best known in her day) was Back Water Blues, with James P. Johnson. Her voice had coarsened by the time of her last session, but few jazz artists have been as consistently outstanding as she.
By 1930 her career had faltered due to the public's changing musical tastes, mismanagement of her affairs, and her heavy drinking. She had started drinking excessively in her teens and drank more heavily as time passed. Gin was her perferred drink, downing tumbler fulls at a time. Her odes to gin include Gin House Blues and Me and My Gin. In many ways Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out was an autobiographical confession for Bessie.
Bessie's last recording session in 1933 billed as a comeback, was in large measure a sentimental gesture by producer John Hammond. Her last New York appearance was in 1936 at a Sunday afternoon jam session sponsored by United Hot Clubs of America at the original Famous Door on 52nd Street.
On the eve of John Hammond's departure to Mississippi to bring her back to New York, September 27, 1937, to record again, Bessie Smith was in an automobile accident just below Clarksdale, Mississippi on the main road to Memphis. Her right arm was nearly severed in the crash, and Bessie died from loss of blood. In a 1937 article by John Hammond he reported that Bessie Smith died after being denied admission to a hospital because of her skin color. However Hammond has since admitted his report was based on hearsay, and those since interviewed who had direct knowledge of the events have made it clear that this was not the case.
An estimated 10,000 mourners filed past her coffin in the Philadelphia funeral home where she lay in state, to pay their respects. Bessie, even in death, was dressed like an Empress, in a long silk gown and slippers that went well with the pink two tone velvet that lined her silver casket. Bessie's grave remained unmarked for 33 years while Jack Gee and her family fought over her estate. It wasn't until 1970 that Janis Joplin and the wife of an NAACP member paid for the stone.She left behind a rich, influential legacy of 160 recordings cut between 1923 and 1933. Some of the great vocal divas who owe a debt to Smith include Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. In Joplin’s own words of tribute, “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.” (info edited, mainly from afroamhistory.about.com)