Bessie Smith

Known as the "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tenn. on April. 15, 1894 and died Sept. 26, 1937. She was the most successful female blues singer of the 1920s. Smith began her career as a singer in honky-tonks and tent shows, but in 1923 went to New York for her first recording session. She was an immediate sensation, and during the succeeding decade she recorded and toured extensively. She was hearty, forthright, and totally uninhibited in her performance as well as in her life.

Because of her impeccable rhythmic sense and her ability to improvise around the structural confines of the blues, Gunther Schuller, in his book Early Jazz, calls her the first important jazz singer. The circumstances of her death, in an automobile accident in Mississippi, were the subject of a play by Edward Albee (The Death of Bessie Smith, 1960). Smith was driven miles to a hospital for "niggers" when she was critically ill despite the nearness of a whites-only hospital. This disgraceful decision to deny treatment at the nearest hospital is believed by many to have resulted in her death.

Her black lesbian circle included the equally legendary Ma Rainey and the male impersonator Gladys Fergusson. Unlike many of her near-contemporaries (Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker), no biography of her has been mounted for cinema or television.

For more information: