Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15, 1894. Bessie was one of seven children. Her parents were William and Laura Smith. William was a Baptist minister and died soon after Bessie was born. Furthermore, in 1906 her mom died along with two of her brothers. After this happened, she was raised by her aunt. Bessie’s childhood transformed her into the person she became. Bessie’s family was poor, so Bessie and her brother, Andrew, performed on the streets of Chattanooga. They performed as a duo on the streets in the heart of the African-American Community.
Andrew played the guitar while she sang or danced. Their favorite spot was in front of the White Elephant Saloon. Her experience on the street would eventually lead her to the show performer she was. In 1912, Bessie’s career began with a small act. Clarence, her oldest brother, was a part of the travelling Stokes Troupe. Finally, Bessie was old enough to join, so Clarence persuaded the managers to give her an audition. They hired her as a dancer rather than a singer because they already had a lead singer, Ma Rainey. They travelled across the south for several months, but Bessie eventually left the group.
This was the spark that she needed for her career. After Bessie left the Stokes Troupe, she starred in her own show. The show was called “Liberty Belles Revue,” where she got to show off her talent. She danced, sung, and appeared as a male impersonator. The show was in Atlanta, Georgia, but she eventually began to travel up the east coast. On June 7, 1923, Bessie married Jack Gee. When they were married, he “helped” with Bessie’s career. There were a lot of disasters during their marriage. Most of the time he was drunk and did not pay attention to Bessie.
Some historical records say that he beat Bessie and kidnapped their adopted son, Jack Gee Jr. Other historical records say that they broke up a few years after their marriage. In 1923, Bessie tried to get record contracts with Okeh and Black Swan Records, but they both denied her. Their reason for denial was she sounded “too rough,” even though both companies represented black artists. The motto of Black Swan Records was “The Only Genuine Colored Record-Others Are Only Passing. ” When they denied Bessie, they did not know that she would go on to be one of the best Blues singers of the 1920’s.
Later in 1923, Bessie signed a contract with Columbia records. Columbia Records did not know that she would eventually be the best female blues singer of the 1920’s. Her first single was “Down Hearted Blues,” which was very successful. When the song was released, it sold an approximate 800,000 copies! This was the peak time in her career. In 1925, Bessie recorded the song “St. Louis Blues. ” She recorded the song with Louis Armstrong, a famous figure in jazz. The song was composed by W. C. Handy who wanted it to reach out to a large audience.
The song was written after Handy went through turmoil and hard times. Handy was losing confidence that he would be a successful black musician, so he wrote this song. The song turned out to be a success. Bessie Smith continued to be known by many throughout the 1920’s. Race relations were really harsh at this time and it showed at a concert of hers. She was performing in a tent when the Ku Klux Klan arrived. They started pulling up the tent stakes and tried to ruin her performance. Bessie quickly approached them and said “pick up them sheets and run! ” The KKK left, and Bessie returned back to her performance.
In 1929, Bessie Smith had a Broadway debut. The show was called “Pansy”, and it did not turn out good. The producer had no prior experience to shows. Also, the cast did not have enough time to practice, and the plot was not good. People did not like it, and it stopped playing three days after the debut. This was not a good thing for Bessie’s career. In 1931, The Great Depression was taking a toll on Columbia Records. The record company was having a hard time recording, so Bessie left. However, she still went on and toured with her own show “The Bessie Smith Revue. She sang in saloons and continued to draw people in.
The night of September 26, 1937 is when life came to an end for Bessie. She was only forty-three years old when she got in an automobile accident. Her car hit another truck that had no headlights turned on. A lot of people attended her funeral, because she was known throughout America. Her casket was trimmed with gold and was lined in pink velvet. She is buried in “Mount Lawn Cemetery” in Pennsylvania. Bessie will always be known as “Empress of the Blues,” and she will be remembered by many.