Bessie Smith ~ Empress of the Blues

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Bessie Smith ~ Empress of the Blues.

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith would have been the first one to laugh at the title “Empress of the Blues.” Not because she thought she didn’t deserve it, but because her childhood and upbringing had accustomed her not to expect much.

Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on a date that is still not clear. Census records say she was born on April 15, 1894, but others say she was born in July of 1892. Perhaps nobody really knows at this time. Her father, a laborer and part-time Baptist minister, passed away before she was old enough to know him.

By the time she was nine years old, she had also lost her mother and a brother. She and another brother kept soul and body alive by making music as street performers. She danced and sang, he played guitar. It was the start of something big!

Most Popular Jazz and Blues Singer of Her Time

Bessie Smith became the most popular jazz and blues singer of her time in the 1920s. She had a powerful voice that recorded well even with early recording techniques and became the highest paid black entertainer of her day.

She made 160 recordings for Columbia Records, often accompanied by top black artists in their own right such as Louis Armstrong. Smith became a major influence on other jazz/blues vocalists who aspired to make a career in the field.

African-Americans of that time didn’t just jump into show business so easily. There were all the segregation problems of the time to be worked out for every show or recording. Nevertheless, this young woman’s talent had both African-American and white people flocking to her performances and buying her recordings. She was unique, a musical sensation and everyone wanted to be able to say they’d heard her in person.

Blues and Jazz: The Forefront of American Music

Bessie Smith’s recordings are found on a series of 6 albums. She was a one-of-a-kind, righteous woman, who knew her music. She sang it with heart and soul, and helped put the blues and jazz in the forefront of American music. Smith had a strong, sensuous voice that some of the churches tried to silence, but fortunately, they did not succeed. Churches were against the kind of music Smith sang, because they felt it was too blatantly sexual. But Bessie Smith knew that this music reached the heart of those who heard it, just as much as gospel music did, and that we are all people with the same kinds of feelings.

Have You Heard of Bessie Smith Before? – Is This The First Time You’ve Heard Her Sing?

Bessie Smith is a legend among blues and jazz artists. She became a blues and jazz singer before anyone else even knew what those terms meant. As a pioneer in the genre, she woke a musically sleeping America to the sound of her fabulous voice, even on old recordings. Today those recordings are revered by jazz artists as being the epitome of what jazz is all about.

Bessie Smith ~ Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out

St. Louis Blues: The Movie. Based on the music of W.C. Handy

In 1929, Bessie Smith starred in a film called St. Louis Blues, based on W.C. Handy’s composition of the same name. She was accompanied by a full orchestra, including stringed instruments. This was an experience she’d never had before on any of her recordings. She moved from Columbia Records to Okeh Records (a subsidiary of Columbia) in 1933, switching her mode of singing from blues to swing to fit the popular music genre of the day. Later, the great singer Billie Holliday (Lady Day) often referred to Bessie Smith’s songs as one of her inspirations to become a singer.

Bessie Smith, The Empress of the Blues, ~ St. Louis Blues – Written by the Father of the Blues, musician and composer W.C.Handy

Great music and food

The Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee begins the second Friday in June and continues nightly until the third Saturday in June. In this street festival you may enjoy a wide variety of blues and nightclub bands, and lavish offerings of barbecued pork, beef, turkey and seafood. The Bessie Smith Strut is held on each Monday night during the Festival’s run.

Celebration in Riverbend, Tennessee

These are musicians entertaining the crowd at the Bessie Smith Strut in Riverbend, Tennessee, an annual celebration of Bessie’s kind of music. There’s food and fun for all.

Riverbend 2009 - Bessie Smith Strut

The Death of Blues Royalty

What Was Her Connection To Singer Janis Joplin?

Bessie Smith was injured in a serious car accident on September 26, 1937. According to reports, her right arm was nearly severed from her body and she had lost about a pint of blood. But the doctor on the scene said that was not the cause of death. He believed she was in shock and had internal injuries due to the impact occurring nearly completely on her passenger side of the car. Bessie Smith’s funeral on October 4, 1937 was attended by approximately 7,000 mourners. Due to mismanagement of funds raised, her grave, near Philadelphia, remained without a headstone until August 7, 1970. At that time, singer Janis Joplin (a fan of Smith’s music) and a lady named Juanita Green who had done housework for Smith, paid for the stone and had it erected. The “Empress of the Blues” was gone at the young age of 43 or 45, depending on which birthdate is used, like a bright comet that burns out swiftly, she left us much too soon.

Queen Latifah made an HBO movie of Bessie Smith’s life. Here’s a trailer for the movie:

A Few Of Bessie Smith’s Honors

  • 1981 Inducted into the Blues and Jazz Hall of Fame
  • 1984 National Women’s Hall of Fame
  • 1989 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame
  • 1994 U.S. Postage Stamp
  • 1996 The Bessie Smith Cultural Center In Chattanooga, TN






Nancy Hardin is a highly experienced writer and author. A retired journalist, she is also a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother with a wealth of experience in many fields. In addition, she is a retiree veteran, having spent many years in the Women’s Army Corps. She is also an experienced ghostwriter and you can see more about her skills at the The Writers’Door. YOu can visit Nancy’s website here and discover more of her work at this site.

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  1. I would love to see that St. Louis Blues film which Bessie Smith starred in.

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