Empress of the Blues: Who Was Bessie Smith?

Bessie Smith was the first major blues and jazz singer. Her bellowing contralto voice, huge popularity, and larger than life personality earned her the sobriquet “Empress of the Blues.”

Jun 15, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

bessie smith blues jazz singer


Bessie Smith’s songs about liberated women, poverty, racism, and everyday struggles won her a legion of fans. Raised on the black Vaudeville circuits of the 1910s, she rose to become a highly successful recording artist in the 1920s. Despite being orphaned as a child and thrust into poverty she became the highest paid black entertainer of her day. The Great Depression ultimately cut her recording career short in 1933 but she never stopped performing. She tragically died after sustaining serious injuries in a car accident in 1937. Bessie Smith was one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s but also one of the greatest of all time.


Early Life

The Rabbit Foot Minstrels: the black Vaudeville/minstrel show through which a young Bessie Smith launched her career, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Bessie Smith, the youngest of seven children, was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894 or 1895. By the age of nine, she had lost her mother, father, and brother Bud. Bessie and her five remaining orphaned siblings went to live with an aunt. 


Living in poverty, for money, her sister took in laundry and Bessie sang on street corners and in local churches while her brother Andrew accompanied her on guitar. She joined her brother Clarence in the Moses Stokes traveling show in her late teens. 


Bessie refined her vocal style on the black Vaudeville stage, learning her craft as an entertainer as a mentee of the great blues singer, Ma Rainey. She quickly became a star act in Fred Swift Walcott’s traveling minstrel show, the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Off the back of her success in the show, by 24 she had established herself as a popular solo act based out of Atlanta, Georgia. 

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Recording Career

Bessie Smith: the legendary Empress of the Blues, 1936, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1923, Bessie Smith signed with Columbia Records and released her first record “Downhearted Blues.” The song was a major hit, selling over three-quarters of a million copies in its first 6 months and propelling her into the national spotlight. 


Already well-known in the South and the East Coast, Bessie gained the headline spot of the Theatre Owners Booking Association, Performing across the country throughout the 1920s. She became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day and around this time earned the sobriquet “Empress of the Blues.”


Between 1923 and 1933 Bessie made 160 recordings for Columbia, including several hits with the seminal jazz musicians of the day, from Louis Armstrong to Sidney Becht. 


In 1929, she starred in Dudley Murphy’s flawed masterpiece “St. Louis Blues.” The film is packed with racist stereotypes about black people, yet features the only known footage of Bessie Smith singing, accompanied by a contingent of Fletcher Henderson’s jazz orchestra, including Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson. 


Sexuality, Liberation, and the Blues

Bessie Smith’s songs about liberated women and sexual love articulated a powerful sense of black freedom, photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1936, Source: Wikimedia Commons


While references to love in the popular music of the 1920s were often sentimental and idealized the music of Bessie Smith was candid and raw. Her songs addressed themes of love and relationships, female sexuality, extramarital affairs, domestic violence, and heartache.


Following the abolition of slavery, a major aspect of black freedom revolved around the ability to make free decisions about relationships, sexuality, and love. Bessie Smith, who was open about her own romantic relationships with both men and women, connected with her audiences as a living feeling public.


Bessie Smith was a bold, independent character who radiated a zest for life. Her journey from rags to riches, combined with her lyrics about female empowerment and sexual love, articulated a powerful sense of black collective freedom (Davis, 1999). Her confident, assertive voice inspired generations of female singers from Mahalia Jackson, to Billie Holiday, and Janis Joplin.


Bessie’s Blues

Portrait shot of Bessie Smith by Carl Van Vechten, 1936, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Bessie Smith sang above all about hardship and life’s struggles: 


“Nobody knows you when you’re down and out

In your pocket, not one penny

And as for friends, you don’t have any.”


She sang the “Empty Bed Blues” (1928) and the “Backwater Blues” (1927), about the tragic 1926 Cumberland River flood. Jim Crow laws forbid her from staying in hotels (so she brought her own tour train). Her lyrics articulated the everyday realities of being black, working class, and poor in America. She sang about poverty, sexism, racism, and the ups and downs of love. Her incredible presence and commanding contralto voice made her a legend in her own time.


Bessie Smith. Source: Wikimedia


Bessie Smith tragically suffered fatal injuries in a car accident in 1937. Though her funeral attracted over 5,000 mourners, due to a lack of funds in her estate, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Finally, in 1970, NAACP leader Juanita Green Smith and Janis Joplin clubbed together for a headstone with a fitting inscription: “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.”

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.