Bessie Smith: Biography, Songs & Facts

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever wanted to sing the blues? In this lesson, untangle some of the myths and learn about the career of Bessie Smith, one of the greatest females blues singers in history. From humble beginnings, she rose to the height of fame in the Roaring Twenties.

Early Years

Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was born in Tennessee. She had a hard start to life, as her parents died by the time she was nine. She began performing in the streets as a teenager, and in 1912, was hired as a dancer by the Moses Stokes Company, thanks to an older brother who worked with them. The company had a blues singer, Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, who became a mentor and friend to Bessie. Contrary to some legends, Ma Rainey did not kidnap Bessie and force her into the show, nor did she teach her how to sing.

Smith was also a performer with the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), the vaudeville circuit for African-American performers that traveled throughout the South and along the East Coast. Vaudeville troops were traveling shows that featured a variety of performers, including singers, dancers, comedians and other specialty acts. For the next ten years, Bessie honed her skills in vaudeville while trying to make her big break.

A Blues Star

In 1923, Smith signed with Columbia Records. Her first single, 'Down-Hearted Blues' with B-side of 'Gulf Coast Blues' sold more than 800,000 copies and established her as a superstar. She became one of the best-known blues singers of the 1920s.

Smith recorded 'St. Louis Blues' with Louis Armstrong, which is considered one of the best recordings of the 1920s. She toured extensively in her own luxurious train car - to avoid the harsh realities of segregated motels and rooming houses - and recorded more than 160 songs, including 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find' (1927), 'Back-Water Blues' (1927), 'Devil's Gonna Git You' (1928), and 'He's Got Me Goin' (1929).

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith

Bessie gained the nickname 'Empress of the Blues.' Her voice was strong and soulful and could move from a swoop to a growl or purr with ease. It conveyed a hard life, but also one she lived. She enjoyed alcohol freely and struggled with alcohol abuse. While some sources claim she was a lesbian, in truth, she was bisexual. She had a tumultuous marriage to Jack Gee, a security guard, and the couple permanently separated in 1929.

Death and Legacy

In the early 1930s, her status began to wane due to changing musical tastes toward swing and big band, the economic downturn of the Great Depression, and her own struggles with alcoholism. Columbia Records dropped her, and she toured to smaller crowds in less noted venues. But she continued to sing and was moving toward reinventing herself as a swing singer when tragedy intervened.

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