Bessie Smith
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Elizabeth Smith (abt. 1894 - 1937)

Elizabeth (Bessie) Smith
Born about in Chattanooga, Hamilton, Tennessee, United Statesmap
Sister of
[spouse(s) unknown]
[children unknown]
Died in Clarksdale, Coahoma, Mississippi, United Statesmap
Profile last modified | Created 18 Feb 2009 | Last significant change: 21 Aug 2021
07:16: Roger Churm edited the Status Indicators for Elizabeth Smith (abt.1894-1937). [Thank Roger for this]
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Bessie Smith is a part of US Black history.
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Notables Project
Bessie Smith is Notable.

Bessie was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on the 15th of April 1894 she was an America blues singer known as the Empress of the Blues and was the most popular female blues singer in the 1920's and 1930's.

It was September 26, 1937 when Bessie passed away in Clarksdale, Mississippi from injuries sustained in a car accident. She was buried Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Research Notes

Keil-336 13:44, 8 December 2018 (UTC)
Content from Wikipedia article for consideration follows. All of this needs its own source, above and beyond the Wikipedia article, if included in the ultimate profile text.

There's a bit of controversy/confusion regarding Bessie's birth date. Per the 1900 US Census, she was born July 1892. Per the 1910 US Census, her age is 16 (b. ~1894). According to the Wikipedia article, the birth date of 15 Apr 1894 is used on subsequent documents and was the date observed by her family. It is this date that is currently used in her WikiTree and Wikipedia profiles. The birth date in the tombstone at her grave per FindAGrave has birth year 1895.
From the 1900 US Census:

  • Home in 1900: 100 Cross Street, Chattanooga Ward 4, Hamilton, Tennessee.
  • Head of household is Bessie's mother Laura Smith. Laura is widowed and has occupation of washer woman. Listed as having had 10 children, 7 of whom are living at the time of the census. Laura was born in Alabama as was Bessie's father.
  • Household members include the following, all with surname Smith:
Lousa age 59 (head)
Bud age 28 (son)
Andrew age 25 (son) (married)
Viola age 23 (daughter)
Tennie age 19 (daughter)
Lula age 16 (daughter)
Clarence age 14 (son)
Bessie age 7 (daughter)
Cora age 22 (daughter-in-law)
(It appears Andrew and Cora may be married.)

From the 1910 US Census:

  • Home in 1910: Chattanooga Ward 7, Hamilton, Tennessee.
  • Head of household is Viola, Bessie's sister. Viola is listed as divorced and with birthplace of Alabama.
  • Household members include the following, all with surname Smith:
Viola age 30 (divorced head of household)
Bessie age 12 (sister)
Laura age 12 (Viola's daughter)
  1. There's also a bit of controversy/confusion regarding Bessie's siblings per the Wikipedia article. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report 3 older half-siblings, but subsequent family interviews and interviews of contemporaries have no mention of these other siblings. [1]
  2. Bessie's mother: Laura Owens. Born in Alabama. Death by the time Bessie was 9 years old.
  3. Bessie's father: William Smith. Born in Alabama. Laborer and part-time Baptist preacher. 1870 Census indicates "minister of the gospel" in Moulton, Lawrence County, Alabama. Death soon enough after Bessie's birth that she has no memories of him. [2]
  4. By the time Bessie was 9 years old, her mother and a brother had also died (in addition to her father). Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings. [3]
  5. Another brother is Andrew, also musically inclined. He accompanied Bessie's singing and dancing on the guitar while they performed on the streets of Chattanooga.
  6. Oldest brother is Clarence who in 1904 joined a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. Clarence's spouse Maud outlived him. (FindAGrave biography implies Clarence may have gone by Charles.)
  7. Bessie married Jack Gee, a security guard she met while living in Philadelphia, on 07Jun1923. Bessie ended the relationship in 1929. Neither Bessie nor Jack filed for divorce.
  8. Bessie later entered a common-law marriage with Richard Morgan (Lionel Hampton's uncle) and was with him until her death.
  9. Bessie died after a car crash that took place 26Sep1937. Richard Morgan was driving with Bessie as the passenger. The write-up on Wikipedia makes it sound like the accident happened in the evening and Bessie died the next morning. So, there may be some unclarity as to whether Bessie died on the 26th or 27th of September.
  10. An estimated 10,000 mourners filed past Bessie's coffin 03Oct1937. Bessie's funeral was in Philadelphia 04Oct1937, attended by approximately 7,000.
  11. Burial is at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill.
  12. Bessie's grave was unmarked until a stone was erected 07Aug1970 and paid for by Janis Joplin and Juanita Green.


  1. Source listings from the 1870 and 1880 US Census yet to be provided.
  2. Sources needed regarding Bessie's father William Smith.
  3. (Source listed in Wikipedia) Albertson, Chris (2003). Bessie (rev. expanded ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09902-9.
  • "United States Census, 1900," database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 8 December 2018), Bessie Smith in household of Lousa Smith, Chattanooga city Ward 4, Hamilton, Tennessee, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 60, sheet 12A, family 270, NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1972.); FHL microfilm 1,241,574.
  • "United States Census, 1910," database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 8 December 2018), Bessie Smith in household of Viola Smith, Chattanooga Ward 7, Hamilton, Tennessee, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 65, sheet 2B, family 48, NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982), roll 1503; FHL microfilm 1,375,516.
  • African Americans in the Performing Arts, Revised Edition. Edited by Steven Otfinoski. New York: Facts on File, 2010. (AfrAmPA2 2). Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Gale Research Company; Detroit, Michigan; Accession Number: 1162353.
  • A to Z of American Women in the Performing Arts. By Liz Sonneborn. New York: Facts on File, 2002. (AZAmWPA). Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Gale Research Company; Detroit, Michigan; Accession Number: 4311040.
  • Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. Ninth edition. Edited by Laura Kuhn. New York: Schirmer Books, 2001. (BakBD 9). Biography & Genealogy Master Index (BGMI) [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Gale Research Company; Detroit, Michigan; Accession Number: 4311047

See Also:

According to the 1900 census Bessie Smith was born on 15 April 1894 in Chattanooga and according to the 1910 census she is aged 16 . She was the daughter of Laura and William Smith who was a part-time Baptist preacher but died whilst his daughter was young , When Bessie was nine ,her mother and brother had passed away leading to her sister Viola taking care of her siblings and Bessie never had any education .

Because of her parents death and her poverty she had an awful childhood and to help out with the money Bessie and Andrew her brother started street singing in Chattanooga and she sang and he played the guitar on Street corners for little money there usual place was by the White Elephant Saloon in the centre of the Africa-America community,

Her elder brother Clarence left home in 1904 joining a small troupe owned by Moses Stokes and Bessie would have gone wih him but she was to young.

Clarence returned with the troupe and arranged an audition for Bessie singing with the troupe managers who hired her as a dancer because they already had the popular singer Ma Rainey i the troupe who helped Bessie to develop a stage presence and Smith moved on to performing in chorus lines with the 81 Theatre as her base. She formed her own act in 1913 at the '81' theatre and had established a reputation by 1920 especially in the South and East Coast a record by Mamie Smith called Crazy Blues had established a new market and led to search for female blues singers. Bessie capitalized on this market and begun her recording career in 1923 when she signed for Columbia Records and her first session was on 15 February 1923 which was engineered by Dan Hornsby the first record issued was Cemetery Blues' 26 September 1923 and then Downhearted Blues/ Gulf Coast Blues .

Her popularity increased and she became a headliner on the Theatre Booking Association circuit and became its top attraction in the 1920's and became the highest paid black entertainer of the time she travelled in her own 72-foot long railroad car and she was nicknames Queen of the Blues but the press upgraded this ti Empress of the Blues her music stressed independence, Fearlessness and sexual freedom . But even so her music was not accepted in certain quarters as she was regarded as to rough but despite this she became the most successful diva because of this style even rougher thn Mamie Smith. She had a strong contralto voice which recorded well and was even better at the event of electrical recording which made her singing more evident. Her first electrical record was Cake Walking Babies recorded 5 May 1925 and she took advantage of the radio broadcasting which had just started up and was well received by the listeners. In all she made 160 recordings for the Columbia Label and played with the top musicians of the day including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P Johnson, Joe Smith and Charlie Green. And a number of her recordings like Alexanders Ragtime Band with the Dorsey Brother's in 1927 became on of the best sellin records.

Bessie's career was cut short by the Depression which almost put the industry out of business and with the start up of the film ended Vaudeville but despite this she kept on performing and touring sometimes singing in clubs and appeared in a Broadway musical in 1929 called Pansy although it flopped the critics said she was its only asset. In November 1929 she made her one film appearance in a two-reeler , St Louis Blues which was based on the song by W. C. Handy's of the same name and she sang this song with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra and the Hall Johnson Choir.

In 1933 John Henry Hammond who also advised Billie Holiday recorded four tracks with Bessie for Okeh which had been acquired by Columbia in 1925 allegedly she was working as a hostess in a speakeasy on Ridge Avenue in semi-obscurity which wasn't correct although she did work at Art's Cafe but not as a hostess. She was still touring when she cut the Okeh sides . She received $37.50 for each selection on what her last recordings and they shifted her artistry from blues to swing.

  • Death

On 26th of September 1937 she was badly injured in a car crash on U.S, Route 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale her lover Richard Morgan who was driving misjudged the speed of a slow moving truck and hit the vehicle's side at high speed and the truck's tailgate sheared off the wooden roof of her old Packard vehicle and she took the full impact though Morgan escaped without injuries.

She was taken to the G.T. Thomas afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale where her right was amputated but she died that morning without gaining consciousness And her body was moved to O.V. Elks Lodge where an estimated 10,000 mourners filed past her coffin on Sunday the 3rd of October . Her funeral was held in Philadelphia and attended by seven thousand people and she was buried at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill ,her grave remained unmarked until a tombstone was erected on 7 August 1970 by the singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green ,

  • Discography

1. The Complete Recordings in 1993

2. Wasted Life Blues in 2006

3. Careless Love Blues in 2013

4. Classic Recordings in 2008

Also 1951. The Bessie Smith Story Volume 4

2010. The Blues Biography

1923. Midnight Blues / Bleeding Hearted Blues

1923. Jail-House Blues / Graveyard Blues

1923. Down Hearted Blues / Gulf Coast Blues

1923. Baby Won't you please come back Home Blues / Oh Daddy Blues

1923. Far Away Blues / I'm Going Back to my Used To Be in

1923. Lady-Luck Blues / Yodling Blues

1923. Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time / My Sweetie Went Away

1923 Mama Got The Blues / Outside Of That Columbia A3900

1923, Chicago Bound Blues / Mistreating Daddy -Columbia1400-D

1923. If You Don't I Know Who Will / Nobody in Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine- Columbia A3942

1923. St. Louis Gal / Sam Jones Blues-Columbia 13005D

1923. Taint Nobody's Biz-Ness If I Do / Keeps On A Raining-Columbia A3898

1924. Dying Gambler's Blues / Sing Sing Prison Blues-Columbia

1924. The Bye Bye Blues / Weeping Willow Blues-Columbia

1924. Salt Water Blues / Rainy Weather Blues- Columbia 14037-D

1924. Frankie Blues / Hateful Blues-Columbia 14020-D

1924. Sorrowful Blues / Rocking Chair Blues-Columbia 14010-D

1924, Haunted House Blues / Evesdropper's Blues-Columbia 1408-D

1924. Pinchbacks-Take Em Away / Window Down-Columbia 14025-D

1924. Lou'siana Low-Down Blues / Mountain Top Blues-Columbia 14031-D

1924. Work House Blues / House Rent Blues-Columbia 14032-D

Plus around 250 more recordings

  • References

1. W.>wiki>Bessie_Smith

2. Forebears|: Bessie Smith, The Empress of the Blues

3. How Bessie Smith Influenced a Century of Popular Music

4.>biography Bessie Smith/Biography .Songs, Music, Death and Facts

5.>musician Bessie Smith-Songs, Death and Facts Biography

6.> Jackie Kay on Bessie Smith:

7. Bessie Smith: The Legendary Empress of The Blues

8.>inductees Bessie Smith/ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 9.>artist Bessie Smith/Spotify


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Bessie is mentioned in the BBC article "The forgotten story of America's first black superstars".
posted by Melanie Paul