b. Unknown: July 1892 or April 15, 1894
d. September 26, 1937
It's a long old road, but I know I'm gonna find the end
Details of Bessie Smith's childhood, including the year of her birth, vary. Both Smith's parents died before her ninth birthday. As a child, she and her brother performed as a musical duo on the streets of Chattanooga, Tennessee to support themselves.
In 1912, Smith joined a traveling troupe. While with the troupe she met blues singer Ma Rainey, who became Smith's friend and mentor. Smith's extraordinary talent as a blues singer, coupled with her vivacious personality, quickly landed her a solo act in Atlanta, Georgia. She entered the Eastern Seaboard vaudeville circuit and over the next ten years her popularity soared.
Columbia Records signed her in 1923 and she quickly became the highest paid African American entertainer of her time. She earned up to $2000 per week during the height of her career. Her successful first recording, titled "Down-Hearted Blues," catapulted her to national success.
Smith toured the country and recorded over 160 songs while accompanied by some of the greatest jazz instrumentalists of her time, including Louis Armstrong. From slow blues to jazz standards, Bessie Smith consistently produced original work with her broad range and versatility. Columbia Records upgraded her unrivaled status as "Queen of the Blues" to "Empress of the Blues."
Five years after signing with Columbia Records, Smith's career began to decline during the Great Depression. Her last recording, featuring Benny Goodman, took place in 1933. Although she never received the same level of acclaim bestowed on her during her early career, Bessie Smith continued to perform in clubs up until her death. She died shortly after a car accident in 1937.Bibliography
“Bessie Smith: Selected Artist Biography.” PBS: Jazz, a Film by Ken Burns. June 29, 2007
Albertson, Chris. Bessie. Yale University Press, 2003
After You’ve Gone (2001)
An Introduction to Bessie Smith: Her Best Recordings 1923-1933 (1996)
Beale Street Mama (1996)
Bessie Smith Sings the Jazz (1996)
Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings, Vol. 1 (1991)
Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings, Vol. 2 (1991)
Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings, Vol. 3 (1992)
Bessie Smith: The Complete Recordings, Vol. 4 (1993)
Best of the Empress of the Blues (2004)
Down Hearted Blues (2006)
Queen of the Blues Vol. 1 (2007)
St. Louis Blues (2005)
The Collection (1989)
The Essential Bessie Smith (1997)
The Incomparable (1999)