Bessie Smith / April 15, 1894 - Sept 26, 1937

One of the greatest singers of her time, Bessie Smith and her powerful voice was a major attraction of the 1920s and stood to influence many jazz & blues vocalists, most notably Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin.

Bessie came from Chattanooga TN. She had lost both her parents by the age of 9 and her & her siblings busked in the streets for a living. At 18 she found work as a dancer in a traveling company that her brother worked for. Ma Rainey was also in the troupe and helped Bessie learn to handle a stage, as well as being a companion of the openly (as much as possible for the time) bisexual Smith.

Moving onto professional singing she was signed to Columbia and they released her first record in '23. She went on to be a huge star, in fact she became the biggest-earning black entertainer of her era, even owning her own railroad car for easier travel.

She recorded with Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson and others and did some work on both Broadway & Hollywood in '29. As the trends moved she was placed into the swing orchestra format in the '30s for her last recordings. She died from a car accident at 43. In 1970 Janis Joplin paid for a tombstone for Bessie. Queen Latifah played her in a movie in 2015. She will be forever known as "the Empress of the Blues".

This fascinating all-black casted 1929 film short (an early "talkie") could very well be the first "music video", starring Bessie as a woman who catches her man unfaithful, finding herself drinking and singing the blues. Of course W.C. Handy wrote the song but also had a major hand in the movie, as co-writer, musical director and casting of Bessie:

And here's Bessie's 1925 hit version of "St Louis Blues", with Louie Armstrong on cornet:

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published