Bessie Smith

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Bessie Smith, dubbed the “Empress of Blues,” was a powerful blues vocalist in the 1920s and 1930s. Bessie lost both of her parents when she was young and was raised by her older sister. Bessie and her brother began performing on the street to help support the family. Because the group already had the famed vocalist Ma Rainey, Bessie got an audition and was hired as a dancer thanks to the initiation of her elder brother, who was a member of a traveling troupe. For the next few years, she put in a lot of effort, appearing in chorus lines and shows. She later secured a recording contract with Columbia and began her career as a recording artist. Bessie became the highest-paid racial entertainer, performing in front of big crowds with Fletcher Henderson and James Johnson, as well as other well-known jazz and blues singers. Bessie committed her heart and soul to music as a legendary Blues performer. This is most likely why she outperformed others who recorded the same number. Many of Ma Rainey’s songs were sung by Bessie, and her audience was picky, as they eagerly awaited Bessie’s tracks, which were real and full of zeal. She had a brief career on Broadway and in the movies, but the Great Depression, along with her personal issues, ended her career short.

Childhood and Adolescence

Bessie was born on April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was one of William and Laura Smith’s seven children. William worked as a laborer and a part-time preacher to make ends meet. Bessie’s parents died while he was a child, and she was raised by Viola, her older sister.

To make ends meet, Bessie and her brother Andrew began performing on the streets. Clarence, Bessie’s older brother, who was a member of a traveling troupe, agreed to take her to an audition because he recognized her singing ability.

Because the ensemble already had a well-known vocalist in Ma Rainey, Bessie was hired as a dancer. Ma Rainey served as Bessie’s instructor and stayed with the troupe until 1915.

Bessie progressively progressed to chorus lines over the next four years, performing for Atlanta’s ’81 Theatre.’ She also performed in T.O.B.A. (Theatre Owners Booking Association) concerts, a black-owned company.

Career of Bessie Smith

Bessie was staying in Philadelphia in the early 1920s when she was approached by ‘Columbia Records,’ who discovered Bessie’s incredible singing talent.

She sung a song called ‘Downhearted Blues’ on her first album, which became quickly popular and sold over 800,000 copies.

Bessie became one of the most important names in the Blues circuit as a result of the chartbuster’s success. During this time, she collaborated with Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, and James P. Johnson, among others.

Bessie was a part of some of the most famous albums from 1923 to 1937. The ‘St. Louis Blues’ with Louis Armstrong was one of her best versions during this time. ‘I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle’ and ‘Cold in Hand Blues’ are two additional well-known compositions Armstrong recorded with him.

Bessie sung the title track with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in the short film ‘St. Louis Blues’ in 1929. The Hall Johnson Choir and a piano piece by James P Johnson were also included in the composition.
Bessie was the highest-paid coloured entertainment by the end of the decade, and she was continually traveling for concerts in South and North America.

In 1933, John Hammond set up a recording session with Bessie for ‘Okeh,’ keeping in mind the burgeoning popularity of jazz music in Europe. It starred Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden, among others.

Bessie was no longer recording with Columbia due to the Great Depression. Bessie was dropped from the recording company’s roster due to financial losses and dwindling interest in historic blues, according to reports. However, she remained immensely famous in the South, and her shows drew large crowds.

Major Works of Bessie Smith

‘Downhearted Blues’ is without a doubt one of Bessie’s most well-known songs, and it was chosen for inclusion in the ‘Library of Congress National Recording Registry’ in 2002. This song is also included in the ‘Songs of the Century’ collection of songs. In addition, the song is one of 500 in the ‘Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.’

Achievements & Awards

Several of this exceptional singer’s recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. This is a special Grammy Award presented to recordings with ‘qualitative or historical value’ that are at least 25 years old.

Personal History and Legacy

She married Jack Gee in 1923. Both Bessie and Jack were infidels in their marriage, thus it was tumultuous. Jack hung out with some dubious characters and was shot multiple times.

Gee was a sucker for cash, but he couldn’t manage the rigors of show business. After Gee learned of Bessie’s romance with Gertrude Saunders, he was unable to accept her bisexuality, and their relationship ended.
Bessie later married Richard Morgan, a friend, and they remained together until her death.

Smith was traveling with Richard to Memphis for a gig on September 26th, 1937, when she was involved in a horrific accident and suffered serious injuries. She died as a result of her injuries while in the hospital.

According to rumors, she was transferred to a white’s hospital, which turned her away, and she bled to death. Regrettably, she was set for another recording session just before her death.

Many younger vocalists, like as Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin, have been influenced by Bessie. The tale of Queen Latifah’s life was told in an HBO documentary.

Bessie Smith Net Worth

Bessie is one of the wealthiest blues singers and one of the most well-known. Bessie Smith’s net worth is estimated to be $1.5 million, according to Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider.


Because Bessie had to travel with her troupes all the time, her brother Clarence insisted that she travel in a modified railroad car so she could remain and sleep in it.