By most accounts, Bessie Smith was a rough, crude, violent woman. She was also one of the greatest Blues singers of the 1920s. The road that took her to the title “Empress of the Blues” was not an easy one. It was certainly not one of the romantic "rags to riches" tales that Horatio Alger made popular during her time. For a young black woman from the South the journey was anything but easy, and it would require a special kind of person, and Bessie Smith was definitely that. She was a woman who fought for what she believed in and backed down to no one. She had a boundless determination, which sometimes became a flaming hot temper, and no one was exempt from it. Yet these same experiences and temperament also expressed great loyalty to those around her. The entire range, with all its passion, was expressed in her songs, and the way she sang them.
Bessie Smith was born into a poor black family in the segregated south. The precise date of her birth is unknown, and most accounts list the year as 1894, but others state 1898 or 1900. According to the 1900 census, she was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July, 1892. That date contradicts what is recorded on her wedding certificate and confirmed by family members, which is April 15, 1894. That 1900 census also provides facts regarding the size of Smith's family that conflict with many published biographies. The censuses of 1870, 1880 and 1900 list Bessie Smith as the thirteenth child of William Smith and the tenth of Laura (Owens) Smith. This information does not coincide with accounts given by family and school mates interviewed by a Smiths biographer, Chris Albertson. According to his book, Bessie, William Smith was a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher who died before Bessie could remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, she had lost her mother as well, and her older sister Viola was left in charge of caring for her sisters and brothers.
Like many from that generation, Bessie dreamed of escaping her life of poverty through show business. At the age of nine, she and her brother Andrew began performing as a singer/guitarist duo on the streets of Chattanooga as a way of earning money for their poverty stricken household. Their favorite location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of the city's black community. In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, secretly left home and joined a small traveling musical troupe owned by Moses Stokes. Clarence's widow, Maud is quoted as saying, "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him, that's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child." Bessie got her turn in 1912, when she joined the Rabbit Foot Minstrels traveling show led by the legendary blues singer Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, who was known as the “Mother of the Blues”. According to contemporary accounts, Ma Rainey did not teach Bessie to sing, but she probably helped her develop her stage presence. She began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theatre. By 1920 she had gained a good reputation in the South and along the East Coast.
After performing on stage for over a decade, Bessie was signed to Columbia Records in 1923. Her first recordings- “Down Hearted Blues” and “Gulf Coast Blues” - sold an estimated 800,000 copies, cementing her position as a major figure in the black record market. She became a headline performer on the black Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) theater circuit and was its top entertainer in the 1920's. Bessie worked such a heavy theater schedule during the winter months and did tent tours the rest of the year that she became the highest-paid black entertainer of the time. Columbia nicknamed her "Queen of the Blues", but the press soon promoted her to "Empress". She sang raw, uncut country blues inspired by her life in the South. She related everyday experiences in plainspoken language - not unlike the...
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