Snapshot Bessie Smith Biography

Portrait of Bessie Smith, her hair cut short, holding feathers. Photograph taken in 1936.
Bessie Smith, 1936

Bessie Smith was a big woman with a temper, unafraid, and capable of fighting anyone, including a man. And fight, she sometimes did. But she was also a generous soul and a playful spirit. And in the words of a fellow musician, “stately, just like a queen.” Then, of course, there was her singing. The stories her songs told, the emotions they captured.

Bessie was born on April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, one of seven children of William and Laura. Life came with challenges from the beginning. There were the struggles of being black in the U.S., particularly in the South. And then there was poverty. But, the most painful must have been the death of her parents. Her father died when Bessie was quite young, and her mother when Bessie was eight years old.

Bessie’s older sister, Viola, took on the responsibility of caring for the children. To help with money, Bessie began singing on street corners at the age of nine. Every nickel mattered to the family of children.

As a young performer, Bessie was influenced by the local blues artists of her time. She was particularly inspired by Ma Rainey, one of the earliest professional blues singers. Through her brother, Bessie joined a troupe that performed with Ma, and a teenage Bessie got the opportunity to learn from her. Though Ma did not teach Bessie to sing, she taught the young artist invaluable lessons about the world of show business and the life of a touring musician.

By the 1920s, the Jazz Age in America was in full swing, and the blues, with its soulful rhythms and poignant lyrics, was the heartbeat of a generation. For Bessie, her big break came in 1923 when she signed with Columbia Records. And then, with her unparalleled vocal prowess, she became its queen. Her first single, “Downhearted Blues,” was a massive hit, selling about 800,000 copies and taking Bessie to national stardom.

Yet, even as fame, success, and riches came, Bessie always remembered her roots. She sang for those she once stood beside and those she continued to stand with – the ailing, the isolated, and the downtrodden. Her fans resonated with her tunes, and Bessie knew the depth of their longing to hear her songs.

As years passed, talking pictures and the Great Depression led to a decline in her fortunes, and her personal life was marked by turbulent relationships and struggles with alcoholism. But she continued to write and sing.

Tragically, Bessie’s life was cut short in a car accident in 1937. She was only 43 years old.

About Bessie, Louis Armstrong would write,

“She used to thrill me at all times, the way she could phrase a note with a certain something in her voice no other blues singer could get. Bessie’s music was in her soul and she felt everything she did. Her sincerity with her music was an inspiration.”

Bessie Smith song, “Down Hearted Blues”

Notes

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