Bessie Smith (1894 - 1937) blues and jazz singer

The Empress of the Blues was born April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga. She earned the title because she was the first major blues and jazz singer on record and one of the most influential of all time. Even on her first records in 1923, her passionate voice overcame the archaic recording quality of those days.

Starting in 1912, young Bessie Smith sang in the same show as Ma Rainey who took her under her wing and tutored her. Some eight years later, Bessie had her own show in Atlantic City. After she moved to New York, she was soon signed by Columbia. Her first recording, of Alberta Hunter's Downhearted Blues, brought her fame instantly. Bessie worked together with many great musicians on her sessions including Louis Armstrong and Charlie Green.

By the end of the 1920's the blues got out-of-fashion 'though and 35-year-old Bessie Smith's career was already declining despite being at the peak of her powers. She appeared in a movie called St. Louis Blues that year (the only footage of her) but her hit recording of Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out predicted her bony depression years. She was dropped by Columbia in 1931 and made her final recordings on a four-song session in 1933, but Bessie Smith kept on working. She substituted for Billie Holiday in the show Stars over Broadway.

The chances are quite high that Bessie Smith would have made a comeback, but she was killed in a car crash in Clarksdale, Mississippi on September 26, 1937.


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