The month of February is Black History month, and to celebrate it here at WUMB we are highlighting artists who have shaped the history of music over time. Today we highlight Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith.
On April 15th, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee Bessie Smith was born. After the passing of both of her parents, Smith and her siblings were raised by their oldest sister, Viola. To earn money for the family Smith and her brother Andrew busked on the street—he played guitar and she sang and danced. Another of her brothers, Clarence, was in a performance troupe that also included Ma Rainey. Smith joined the troupe in 1912 first as a dancer and later as a singer.
It was at Atlanta’s 81 Theater that Smith’s career really took off, developing her own act and making a name for herself on the East Coast and in The South. Frank Walker saw her perform and signed her to Columbia Records. Her first recording featured “Downhearted Blues” as well as “Gulf Coast Blues” quickly became a hit turning Smith into a headlining act—touring year round—and the highest paid African American entertainer of the time. She ultimately made 160 recordings for the Columbia accompanied by musicians such as Charlie Green, Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson and others. In addition to her recording career Bessie Smith also appeared on Broadway in the musical Pansy, and the film St. Louis Blues.
On September 26, 1937 Bessie Smith passed away of injuries sustained in a fatal car accident. Over 7,000 people attended her funeral, yet despite this fact she was buried without a headstone until Janis Joplin gave her one in 1970. Since her death three of Smith’s songs have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame; “Downhearted Blues”, “St. Louis Blues”, and “Empty Bed Blues”. “Downhearted Blues” is held in particular esteem, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll, as well as being included in the Songs of The Century by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry of America. Bessie Smith inspired works of literature by J.D. Salinger and Edward Albee as well as a musical by Angelo Parra. An HBO film entitled Bessie and starring Queen Latifah will premiere on the network this spring.