1894 – 1937
Bessie Smith, known as “Empress of the Blues”, was born on April 15 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was one of seven children to a part-time Baptist preacher and his wife. However, by the time Bessie was nine years old both of her parents were dead. Bessie and her brother Andrew were already singing on the streets of Chattanooga for spare change.
Bessie’s older brother Clarence had joined a travelling vaudeville1 show as a comedian and dancer and in 1912 he arranged an audition for Bessie with the Moses Stokes Company. She joined as a dancer and working alongside established star Ma Rainey, rose to be a featured singer. By 1920 she had established herself as leading artist on the TOBA (Theatre Owners’ Booking Association) packing in crowds for every show. By 1921, having been married and widowed, Bessie moved to Philadelphia in an attempt to get a recording career underway, initially with little success.
After various touring shows, Clarence Williams sought out Bessie to record together in New York and in 1923 the song Down Hearted Blues (with Clarence on piano) was recorded with great success, selling more than 80,000 copies in 1923. Between 1923 and 1933 Bessie recorded more than 150 for Columbia Records, making her one of the most prolific artists of her time. She is reported to have earned around $2,000 per week at the height of her career. Bessie’s recordings ranged from uproarious vaudeville songs to slow blues. She customarily refused to work with a drummer, determinedly setting her own, usually slow tempos. On some recordings, after an instrumental opening by her accompanists, her entrance noticeably slows the tempo.
In 1929 she made her only film appearance, alongside James P Johnson in St Louis Blues. However it was during this time that Bessie’s personal problems began to affect her recording career. A drinking problem, fighting and relationship issues were the beginnings of her downfall. Also in...