Bessie Smith: The Empress of Blues

Bessie Smith was one of the leading voices in Blues music during the 1920’s as the highest paid black female artist earning $2,000 a week performing some of her major hits. She was able to tell a story about black women’s lives regarding domestic abuse, sexism, racism, and many more tough topics in blues music. She opened doors for many black women in the music industry, inspiring them to tell their own story. However, what made her truly unique in this industry was her ability to use her acting and comedic skills in draw in the attention of her listeners. She often sang songs about topics that every day people could relate to, which is what put her on the map and loved by many. 

A "Blue" Early Life

Before Bessie became a star in the music industry and selling out concerts, her early life wasn’t the greatest as she lost both of her parents at the age of 10 and was forced to live with her older sister who treated her and her siblings quite unfair. Wanting to pursue her career in music, she sang on the streets and in churches to get recognized by industry professionals, and eventually payed off. Later down the road at the age of 16, she went on tour with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels and was a very big deal for Bessie Smith since this would be the start of launching her career in Blues. Smith later felt the need to become her own woman and branch out by herself in the music industry, so she detached herself from these groups she often toured with, and began to sing solo and for her, was probably the best decision she made. 

"Downhearted Blues"

Downhearted Blues was one of Bessie Smith’s biggest hits with selling close to 800,000 copies. She used this song as a way to express her love for a man who later broke her heart. The opening line, “It’s hard to love someone when that someone don’t love you” is a line that almost everyone could relate to then, and even now. Bessie Smith was timeless when it came to her music. Having specific tactics in order to have her audience members love her, was simple which was using every day issues in her songs. Downhearted Blues was one of these songs 

"A Hell of a Woman"

These five words was how men and women described her, and these words were pretty self explanatory. Often, there was comparison between her and how preachers were able to move their listeners with call-and-responses, which is what she was able to do with her audience members. Danny Barker, a renowned musician from New Orleans states there were similarities between preachers from the South, and Bessie singing on stage and how Bessie was able to move her audience members as preachers did theirs. What made her stand out was her ability to make her voice sound loud and clear without even using a microphone, and her ability to combine different music genres to the extent that she did, making her voice and sound unforgettable. As she did sign with Columbia Records in her early years of singing, just 10 months into signing with Columbia, she sold 2 million records. 

Famous Hits


Bessie Smith’s sales in music dropped after radio became the next big thing. She wasn’t able to produce records since many people could tune into the radio to listen to music instead of buying record players, but this didn’t stop her from continuing to make music and remain one of the most prominent faces in Blues music that people will always remember. Tragedy struck on September 26th, 1937 when Bessie Smith got in a car wreck while traveling to Memphis, Tennessee with her partner, Richard Morgan, lost control of the vehicle after gliding with a truck. She was severely injured after she was thrown from the car and later died from her injuries. There are some speculations that she died from her injuries while being taken in an ambulance after they were trying to find a hospital for her that would treated colored people. However, it was too late. Though she is gone, she is still loved and remembered by many people, even in the music industry. She will always be known as someone who broke barriers and forced her voice to be heard by people of all races, and was not shy to share her life story through Blues with everyone. 

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