Best Known For
Jazz and blues vocalist Bessie Smith's powerful, soulful voice won her countless fans and earned her the title "Empress of the Blues."
Ray Charles - Mini Biography (4:13)
A short biography of Bessie Smith, who became known as the "Empress of the Blues." Her distinctive voice made her one of the first jazz singers to appear on records.
Louis Armstrong, nicknamed "Satchmo," "Pops" and, later, "Ambassador Satch," was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. An all-star virtuoso, he came to prominence in the 1920s, influencing countless musicians.
Josephine Baker fought for racial equality as a performer in the 1920s and '30s. Learn the steps that this dancer took in the fight against discrimination.
Ray Charles was one of America's greatest musicians, pioneering the genre of soul music during the 1950s by fusing rhythm & blues, gospel and blues.
Think you know about Biography?
Answer questions and see how you rank against other players.Play Now
Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15, 1894. She began to sing at a young age and in 1923 signed a contract with Columbia Records. Soon she was among the highest-paid black performers of her time with hits like "Downhearted Blues." By the end of the 1920s, however,
"I've been poor and I've been rich, and rich is better."
her career suffered from both the Depression and her battle with alcoholism. She continued to perform and made new recordings at the start of the Swing Era. Her comeback and life were cut short when she was killed in an automobile accident outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi on September 26, 1937.
Bessie Smith was born Elizabeth Smith on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was one of seven children. Her father, a Baptist minister, died soon after her birth, leaving her mother to raise her and her siblings. Around 1906, her mother and two of her brothers died and Smith and her remaining siblings were raised by their aunt. It was around this time that Smith began to perform as a street singer, accompanied on the guitar by one of her younger brothers. In 1912, Smith began performing as a dancer and a singer in the Moses Stokes minstrel show, and soon thereafter in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, of which blues vocalist Ma Rainey was a member. Rainey took Smith under her wing and gave her some early training, and over the next decade Smith continued to perform at various theaters and on the vaudeville circuit.
By the early 1920s, Smith had settled down and was living in Philadelphia, and in 1923 she met and married a man named Jack Gee. That same year, she was discovered by a representative from Columbia Records, with whom she signed a contract and made her first song recordings. Among them was a track titled "Downhearted Blues," which was wildly popular and sold an estimated 800,000 copies, propelling Smith into the blues spotlight. With her rich, powerful voice, Smith soon became a successful recording artist and toured extensively. To circumvent the prejudicial treatment that she and her traveling troupe sometimes endured, Smith eventually bought a custom railroad car for them to travel and sleep in.
In her recording career, Bessie Smith worked with many important jazz performers, such as saxophonist Sidney Bechet and pianists Fletcher Henderson and James P. Johnson. With Johnson, she recorded one of her most famous songs, "Backwater Blues." Smith also collaborated with the legendary jazz artist Louis Armstrong on several tunes, including "Cold in Hand Blues" and "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle." By the end of the 1920s, Smith was the highest-paid black performer of her day, and had earned herself the title "Empress of the Blues."
However, at the height of her success, Bessie Smith’s career began to flounder, due in part to the financial ravages of the Great Depression and her increasingly serious alcoholism. In 1929 she and Jack Gee permanently separated, and by the end of 1931 Smith had stopped working with Columbia altogether. However, ever the dedicated performer, Smith adapted her repertoire and continued to tour.
profile name: Bessie Smith profile occupation:
Sign in with Facebook to see how you and your friends are connected to famous icons.
Your Friends' Connections
Included In These Groups
Many African-Americans made their name performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, including Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. The roster of talented artists who made their careers after a successful amateur night at the Apollo grew so large, that the venue earned a reputation as the place to jump-start the career of an ambitious hopeful. Other performers, like Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson, came to the theater after experiencing big professional success, adding further credibility to the historic New York concert hall. Explore the biographies of some of the more notable African-Americans who stepped out onto the Apollo stage, making entertainment history.
Apollo Legends 25 people in this group
In the 1920s, women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the first—and for a while, the only—artists to record the blues. American women of this era made great strides toward gaining equality and basic human rights for themselves and others in society, including attaining the right to vote and working toward social justice. The 20th century was a wide-open opportunity for women to embrace the modern world, outside of the traditional bounds of the home.
Foremothers of Rock 10 people in this group
With its roots in the blues, jazz has been referred to as America's classical music, yet has also become a major global phenomenon, branching off into a variety of forms. Earlier pioneers like Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton paved the way for the swinging big-band sounds of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In contrast, contemporaries Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk developed bebop, with its speedy, dissonant harmonies and improvisations. And Miles Davis heralded the birth of cool jazz, modal jazz and fusion at different points in his career. Famous jazz instrumentalists have tended to be male, yet women have been at the forefront of the genre when it comes to vocalization, from the brassy blues of Bessie Smith to the haunting eclecticism of Nina Simone.
Famous Jazz Musicians 29 people in this group