- Smith, Bessie
orig. Elizabeth Smithborn April 15, 1898?, Chattanooga, Tenn., U.S.died Sept. 26, 1937, Clarksdale, Miss.Smith sang popular songs as well as blues on the minstrel and vaudeville stage. She began recording in 1923 and appeared in the film St. Louis Blues (1929). Her interpretations represent the fully realized transition of the rural folk tradition of the blues to its urbane structure and expressiveness. A bold, supremely confident artist with a powerful voice and precise diction, she became known as "Empress of the Blues." Smith was the most successful African American entertainer of her time. She died from injuries sustained in a car crash, and it was said that, had she been white, she would have received earlier medical treatment and her life might have been saved; the actual circumstances of her treatment remain obscure.
* * *▪ American singerin full Elizabeth Smithborn April 15, 1898?, Chattanooga, Tenn., U.S.died Sept. 26, 1937, Clarksdale, Miss.American singer, one of the greatest of blues vocalists.Smith grew up in poverty and obscurity. She may have made a first public appearance at the age of eight or nine at the Ivory Theatre in her hometown. About 1919 she was discovered by Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (Rainey, Ma), one of the first of the great blues singers, from whom she received some training. For several years Smith traveled through the South singing in tent shows and bars and theatres in small towns and in such cities as Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia. After 1920 she made her home in Philadelphia, and it was there that she was first heard by Clarence Williams, a representative of Columbia Records. In February 1923 she made her first recordings, including the classic “Down Hearted Blues,” which became an enormous success, selling more than two million copies. She made 160 recordings in all, in many of which she was accompanied by some of the great jazz musicians of the time, including Fletcher Henderson (Henderson, Fletcher), Benny Goodman (Goodman, Benny), and Louis Armstrong (Armstrong, Louis).Bessie Smith's subject matter was the classic material of the blues: poverty and oppression, love—betrayed or unrequited—and stoic acceptance of defeat at the hands of a cruel and indifferent world. The great tragedy of her career was that she outlived the topicality of her idiom. In the late 1920s her record sales and her fame diminished as social forces changed the face of popular music and bowdlerized the earthy realism of the sentiments she expressed in her music. Her gradually increasing alcoholism caused managements to become wary of engaging her, but there is no evidence that her actual singing ability ever declined.Known in her lifetime as the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith was a bold, supremely confident artist who often disdained the use of a microphone and whose art expressed the frustrations and hopes of a whole generation of black Americans. Her tall figure and upright stance, and above all her handsome features, are preserved in a short motion picture, St. Louis Blues (1929), banned for its realism and now preserved in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. She died from injuries sustained in a road accident. It was said that, had she been white, she would have received earlier medical treatment, thus saving her life, and Edward Albee made this the subject of his play The Death of Bessie Smith (1960).Additional ReadingPaul Oliver, Bessie Smith (1959, reissued 1971); Chris Albertson, Bessie (1972, reissued 1985); Edward Brooks, The Bessie Smith Companion: A Critical and Detailed Appreciation of the Recordings (1982).
* * *