Bessie Smith

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Smith, Bessie

Smith, Bessie, 1894–1937, American singer, b. Chattanooga, Tenn. About 1910 Smith became the protégée of Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, one of the earliest blues singers. After working in traveling shows she went to New York City, where she made (1923–28) recordings, accompanied by such outstanding artists as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and James P. Johnson. She quickly became the favorite singer of the jazz public. The power and somber beauty of her voice, coupled with songs representing every variety of the blues, earned her the title “Empress of the Blues.” Around 1928, changing popular taste and her growing alcoholism led to a decline in her popularity. Though she continued to tour, her last years were embittered. She died after an automobile accident while on tour in Mississippi; controversy has surrounded the circumstances of her death, with it originally reported that she was denied admittance to a white hospital. Numerous critics regarded her as among the greatest of all jazz artists, and her fame increased enormously after her death.


See biographies by P. Oliver (1961) and C. Albertson (rev. ed. 2003).

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Smith, Bessie

(1895–1937) vocalist; born in Chattanooga, Tenn. Beginning her career in the minstrel show of her mentor, Ma Rainey, between 1923–33 she toured extensively throughout the U.S.A. and recorded prolifically. Known as "Empress of the Blues," she established prototypes for both classic female blues singing and the hard-lived life associated with it.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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Kool Herc Billie Holiday Lightnin' Hopkins Son House B.B.King Mahalia Jackson Michael Jackson Robert Johnson Scott Joplin Bob Marley Carmen McRae Charlie (Bird) Parker Prince Ma Rainey Little Richard Paul Robeson Smokey Robinson Bessie Smith Charles Tindley Sister Rosetta Thorpe Ike and Tina Turner Sarah Vaughan Muddy Waters Howlin' Wolf Jackie Wilson Stevie Wonder
Originally built as the Alhambra Theater in 1905, it began as a vaudeville venue, eventually showing movies and opening an upstairs ballroom hosting legendary performers such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.
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