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Bessie Smith Profile

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The Essential Bessie Smith

The Essential Bessie Smith

Photo courtesy Price Grabber

Bessie Smith - The Empress of the Blues:

Born: April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga TN

Died: September 26, 1937 in Clarksdale MS

Known as "The Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith was both the best and the most famous of the female singers of the 1920s. A strong, independent woman and a powerful vocalist that could sing in both jazz and blues styles, Smith was also the most commercially successful of the era’s singers. Her records sold tens, if not hundreds of thousands of copies - an unheard of level of sales for those days.

Smith's Early Days

At the young age of 18 in 1912, Smith was performing as a singer and dancer on the same vaudeville show as another powerful blues singer, Ma Rainey. Rainey taught Smith the ropes, and soon the younger performer had surpassed her mentor. By 1920, Smith was starring in her own show in Atlantic City, and three years later the singer moved to New York City.

Smith signed with Columbia Records and struck gold with her 1923 debut, a rendition of Alberta Hunter's "Downhearted Blues." The song reportedly sold more than 750,000 copies, its success making Smith a star. She continued to record throughout the 1920s, waxing some 160 songs for Columbia, and performed alongside talented musicians like Louis Armstrong. Smith's annual Harlem Frolics tent show was a big hit during the mid-1920s.

Commercial Decline

Smith appeared in the low-budget film St. Louis Blues in 1929, the only known footage of the singer known to exist. That same year she recorded her last hit, the Depression-era standard "Nobody Knows When You're Down And Out." Sadly, the public’s interest in blues and jazz singers waned during the early-1930s, and Smith was dropped by her label in 1931.

Smith returned to her roots and sang in small clubs for a pittance - a far cry from her peak, when she performed in theaters and hotel ballrooms across the country. Rediscovered by Columbia Records’ talent scout John Hammond, Smith recorded with bandleader Benny Goodman in 1933 and played the Apollo in 1935. Smith would also substitute for Billie Holiday in the show Stars Over Broadway. Before Smith could launch a full-fledged comeback, the singer tragically died of injuries from an auto accident in 1937.

Recommended Albums: Smith’s best performances can be heard on the two-CD, 36-song set The Essential Bessie Smith.

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