Classic Blues was the earliest form of blues music. Classic Blues were performed by female singers accompanied by small bands of jazz musicians or by instrumental duos and solo pianists. The form of blues vocals that these women blues singers adopted was considered vocal effects, often with rich intonation. Bessie Smith is one of the most famous and influential Classic Blues singers of the 1920s and 30s. Smith was known for her majestic and powerful delivery which mesmerized all who heard her. She was named the “Empress of the Blues”. Smith is one of the greatest singers of her era, who greatly influenced many blues singers.
Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894. Bessie’s parents died at a very young age. Smith and her siblings endured a tough childhood. To earn money during the hard times, Bessie and her siblings sang on the street corners in the middle of African American communities. To jumpstart her career, Bessie auditioned for a recording company where she got hired as a dancer. She met Ma Rainey who went on to influence Smith’s music career.
Smith continued to perform in clubs and perform her own acts. By 1920 she had an established reputation in the south. In 1923 Smith was signed to Columbia Records, where she made 160 recordings. As Smith became more popular, she became the headliner on the Theatre Owners Booking Association circuit and became the top attraction. She performed in theatres and tent shows all over the country. She became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Smith’s career was cut short by the Great Depression, but she continued to sing in clubs and make an appearance on film and on broadway.
In 1937, Bessie Smith was killed in a car crash in Tennessee. Her partner was driving when he hit the side of the truck at high speed. After Bessie’s death, many singers stopped performing blues with few exceptions. Smith’s influence is still shown throughout blues and jazz music to this day.