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Sun, 04.15.1894

Bessie Smith, the “Blues Empress” born

Bessie Smith

This date marks the birthday of Bessie Smith in 1894. She was a Black lesbian and bisexual woman entertainer who danced, acted, and performed comedy.

Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and like many of her generation, she dreamed of escaping poverty by way of show business. As a teenager, she joined the Moss Stokes Company traveling minstrel show with her comedian brother Clarence and befriended another member, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, who served as her blues mentor.

Smith was signed to Columbia Records in 1923. Her first recording - Down Hearted Blues b/w Gulf Coast Blue," - sold an estimated 800,000 copies. Smith sang raw, uncut country blues inspired by life in the South. Her better-known songs include Backwater Blues, Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do, St. Louis Blues, and Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out. The Depression dealt her career a blow, but Smith changed with the times by adopting a more up-to-date look and revised repertoire that incorporated Tin Pan Alley tunes as Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

On the verge of the Swing Era, Bessie Smith earned the title of "Empress of the Blues" by her forceful vocal delivery and command of the genre. She was the highest-paid Black performer of her day and arguably reached greater success than any Black entertainer before her.   An open LGBT woman, Smith, died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, in September 1937.

To Become a Musician or Singer


Bessie Smith Cultural

Nothing But the Blues The Music and the Musicians
Edited by Lawrence Cohn
Copyright 1993 Abbeville Publishing Group, New York
ISBN 1-55859-271-7

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