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Sun, 04.15.1894

Bessie Smith, “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 a life of 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. Some of 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 adapting a more up-to-date look and revised repertoire that incorporated Tin Pan Alley tunes like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

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

Reference:
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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