September 26, 1937 – American jazz singer Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15th, 1894. She was often referred to as “The Empress of the Blues”, and was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as the greatest singers of her era, and, along with Louis Armstrong, she was a major influence on subsequent jazz and blues vocalists.
The 1900 census indicates that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July 1892, a date provided by her mother. However, the 1910 census recorded her birthday as April 15, 1894, a date that appears on all subsequent documents and was observed by the entire Smith family. Census data also contribute to controversy about the size of her family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, while later interviews with Smith’s family and contemporaries did not include these individuals among her siblings.
She began singing for money on street corners and eventually rose to become the largest-selling recording artist of her day. To earn money for their impoverished household, Bessie Smith and her brother Andrew began busking on the streets of Chattanooga as a duet: she singing and dancing, he accompanying her on guitar. Their favorite location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of the city’s African-American community.
In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, covertly left home, joining a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. “If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him,” said Clarence’s widow, Maud. “That’s why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child.”
In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe. He arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give Smith an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company also included the well known singer, Ma Rainey. Bessie’s early career was hence strongly influenced by Ma Rainey.
She went on to record more than 160 songs between 1923 and 1933 recording with such jazz legends as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Coleman Hawkins. She traveled with her own tent show or with the Theater Owners’ Booking Association aka TOBA shows, commanding an amazing weekly salary that peaked at $2,000.
Her hits include “Downhearted Blues” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. Bessie also appeared in the 1929 movie St. Louis Blues. Three of her recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, her “Downhearted Blues”, “St. Louis Blues”, and her hit from 1928 “Empty Bed Blues”.
Tragically Bessie died in a car accident on U.S. Route 61 while traveling from a Memphis concert to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Bessie was taken to Clarksdale’s segregated Afro-Hospital and her arm was amputated, but she never regained consciousness and died on the morning September 26, 1937, long before anyone had coined the word Rock and Roll. She was 43 years old.