Along with Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith, singer Bessie Smith helped pioneer the genre of blues music and propel it into popular culture. Her early death at the age of 43 cut short a career that influenced the direction of American music and contributed to the success of African Americans in the performing arts.
Smith was born into poverty most likely on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee to William Smith, a preacher, and Laura Smith. Both parents died when Bessie was young. To help support her orphaned siblings, Bessie began her career as a Chattanooga street musician, singing in a duo with her brother Andrew to earn money to support their indigent family.
In 1912 at the age of 18 she joined the traveling Moses Stokes Company, where she met and became friends with Georgia blues performer Gertrude Ma Rainey. Smith traveled with the show as a singer and dancer and then as a performer with the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), the leading vaudeville circuit for black American performers during the 1920s and 1930s. With TOBA, Smith gradually built up a regional and eventually a national following. In 1921 she was ready to record, but early auditions with recording companies like Okeh were unsuccessful.
However, the year 1923 proved significant to Smith both personally and professionally. She married night watchman John “Jack” Gee, and she made her recording debut with Columbia Records teaming with pianist Clarence Williams. Evidence suggests that both Gee and Williams siphoned money from Bessie’s earnings as her career took off.
Initially, Smith and Williams recorded two songs, “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues,” which sold more than 750,000 in its first year of release. Following her debut success, Columbia Records promoted her as “Queen of the Blues,” but the press soon upgraded her nickname to “Empress of the Blues.”
During her career, Smith also worked with musicians such as James P. Johnson, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman and Louis Armstrong. Throughout the 1920s she made more than 160