Bessie Smith: 'Empress of the Blues'

The strong, soulful voice of jazz and blues vocalist Bessie Smith won her numerous fans and earned her the title ‘Empress of the Blues.’

Life of Bessie Smith


At a young age, Bessie Smith started to sing and signed a contract with Columbia Records in 1923. She was soon among the highest-paid black performers of her day with hits like “Downhearted Blues.” However by the end of the 1920s, her success had diminished. Smith’s career, however, started to stagnate at the height of her prominence, due in part to the financial devastation of the Great Depression and a transition in social values. She and her husband Gee split permanently in 1929, and Smith had stopped working with Columbia completely by the end of 1931.Smith, however, as a devoted singer, adapted her range and continued to tour. In 1933, producer John Hammond contacted Smith to make new records, which pointed to the coming Swing Era. Smith was en route to a show in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 26, 1937, with her longtime friend, Richard Morgan, when he sidetracked a truck and lost control of their vehicle. Smith was thrown out of the car and seriously wounded. She died in a hospital in Clarkdale, Mississippi, from her wounds. She was forty-three. A week later in Philadelphia, Smith’s funeral was held, with thousands coming to pay their respects. In Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, she was buried at Mount Lawn Cemetery.

Legacy and Accomplishments


Smith’s music has continued to win over new fans since her death, and over the years, albums of her songs have continued to sell exceptionally well. For several female vocalists, including Billie Holliday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, she was a key influence and has been immortalized in various works. “Bessie”, by journalist Chris Albertson, a detailed, acclaimed bio on her life, was published in 1972 and expanded in 2003. With Queen Latifah portraying Smith and Mo’Nique playing Ma Rainey, a film loosely based on the book aired in 2015.

“No time to marry, no time to settle down; I’m a young woman, and I ain’t done runnin’ around.”

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