by: LaShaunda McWright
Known as “The Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith was born Elizabeth Smith, on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, TN although there are assumptions of her actual birth date being July 1892. By the time she was eight, she had lost both parents so she was raised by her aunt along with her siblings. She discovered her voice at an early age and began singing and dancing for money on street corners along with her brother who played guitar for her. She became a dancer in 1912 for the Mose Stokes minstrel show at age 18. Soon after she would meet Ma Rainey at the Rabbits Foot Minstrel Show where Ma Rainey who was already a member and took Bessie under her wing. Her powerful vocals landed opportunities at cabarets in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
In 1918, Bessie Smith starred in her own show as a male impersonator “Liberty Belles Revenue in Atlanta, GA. By 1920, she was working in Horan’s Madhouse Club where she appeared in the musical comedy “How Come”, staged at the Dunbar Theater in Philadelphia. Bessie Smith was a show-stopping attraction and by February 1923, she was signed to Capital Records where her first recording “Alberta Hunter’s Downhearted Blues” was made famous. Blues music was made to tell stories and Bessie did just that in her songs “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out”, “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” and “Back-Water Blues” where she expressed the tragedies and storms in her life including depression and her sexuality. She spent many years traveling through the south parts, such as Mississippi, Alabama, Memphis, TN, singing in clubs, theaters and tent shows. Her summer tent show “Harlem Frolics” was a huge success between 1925 – 1927 and in 1928, her performance “Mississippi Days” was just as successful. She worked with top musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Green and her favorite jazz cornetist Joe Smith.
“No time to marry, no time to settle down; I’m a young woman, and I ain’t done runnin’ around.” ~ Bessie Smith
Blues lyric was known to be very sexual while shunned upon in the 1920s however, Bessie Smith was openly bisexual. She was briefly married to Jack Gee in 1923 but their marriage diminished by 1929. Two years later, she was dropped from Columbia Records but continued working and starred in the film “St. Louis Blues”. The Blues began to fade out to Jazz Music and Bessie Smith suffered from alcoholism which caused her violent outbreaks and made it almost impossible for her to find work. However she did continue to work and perform. In spite of the negative views of her sexuality and alcoholism, Bessie was also known for her generosity. She wasn’t shy of sharing her hard earned wealth with family and friends.