Bessie Smith, “Empress of the Blues,” was bom in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she grew up with her six siblings. Her par¬ ents died at a very young age, so Bessie grew up under the care of her older sister Viola.
Bessie grew up in harsh poverty, but she had music, and all the emotional power of a world-class performer. Retreating early into the solace of blues rhythms, Bessie started singing with her young voice on the streets for nickels and dimes when she was only nine years old.
When she was 18, Bessie obtained her first part in a show. One of her first big fans was the famous blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Having launched a lifetime career, Smith began to travel throughout the South, singing everywhere. She could be found in clubs, theaters, anywhere people could gather.
Traveling in the South meant living dai¬ ly with segregation and the threat inherent in being a new African-American woman in racist towns where she wasn’t protected by her reputation as a singer. A safe place to sleep was hard to come by, as was a deseg¬ regated restaurant, or a seat on the bus.
As George Hoefer wrote, “Her blues could be funny and boisterous and gentle and angry and bleak, but underneath all of them ran the raw bitterness of being a human being who had to think twice about which toilet she could use. You cannot hear Bessie with¬ out hearing why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. doesn’t want to wait anymore.”
Even though Smith dealt with a lot of racism, she was not often afraid. Once threatened by a group of Ku Klux Klan members, Bessie chased them out, crying “You better pick up them sheets and run!”
She was a big, powerful woman who by 1920 had grown into one of the nation’s favorite blues singers. Crossing all race lines, Bessie drew massive crowds with her voice, and attracted some of the best musi¬cians, including Charlie Green, Louis Arm¬ strong (see no. 60) and Benny Goodman, who were honored to back her up.
She made her first record in 1923, called it “Down Hearted Blues,” and watched it sell more than two million copies during a year in which Columbia Studios had even considered going out of business. Bessie herself lived like a queen, making enough money that she could be effusively gener¬ ous, which hurt her later, when the Depres¬ sion hit in 1929.
Bessie went back on the road, back to the harsh conditions of traveling, though poverty cut back the number of people who could afford to see her or buy her brilliant recordings. While on the road, she was crit¬ ically injured in a car crash and taken to a Negro Hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where she died.