Bessie Smith

Topics: Bessie Smith, Blues, Columbia Records Pages: 1 (275 words) Published: January 6, 2009
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 traveling 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.”
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