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Bessie Smith was an America blues singer known as "the Empress of the Blues," and was the most popular female blues singer in the 1920s and 1930s.
She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on the 15th of April 1894. On September 26, 1937 she died in Clarksdale, Mississippi, from injuries sustained in a car accident. She was buried Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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:
From the 1910 US Census:
Summary of Wikipedia?
She was the daughter of Laura and William Smith, a part-time Baptist preacher who died while his daughter was young. When Bessie was nine, her mother and brother also died, leading to her sister Viola taking care of her siblings. Bessie never had any education.
Because of her parents' death she had an impoverished childhood, and to help out with the money. Bessie and Andrew, her brother, started street singing in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She sang and he played the guitar on street corners for a little money; their usual place was by the White Elephant Saloon in the center of the African-America community.
Her elder brother Clarence left home in 1904, joining a small troupe owned by Moses Stokes; Bessie would have gone with him, but she was too young.
Clarence returned with the troupe and arranged an audition for Bessie with the troupe managers; they hired her as a dancer because they already had the popular singer Ma Rainey in the troupe. She helped Bessie to develop a stage presence, and Smith moved on to performing in chorus lines with the "81 Theater" as her base. She formed her own act in 1913 at the "81," and had established a reputation by 1920, especially in the South and the 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 began her recording career in 1923 when she signed for Columbia Records. Her first session was on 15 February 1923, which was engineered by Dan Hornsby; the first record issued was "Cemetery Blues," on 26 September 1923, and then "Downhearted Blues"/"Gulf Coast Blues."
Her popularity increased and she became a headliner on the Theater Booking Association circuit and became its top attraction in the 1920s. She became the highest-paid black entertainer of the time. She traveled in her own 72-foot long railroad car, and she was nicknamed "Queen of the Blues," but the press upgraded this to "Empress of the Blues." Her music celebrated independence, fearlessness and sexual freedom.
Thought by some to be too rough, she became the most successful diva because of this style even rougher than Mamie Smith.
She had a strong contralto voice which was even better at the advent of recording, which made her singing more evident. Her first record was "Cake Walking Babies," recorded 5 May 1925. She took advantage of 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 "Alexander's Ragtime Band" with the Dorsey Brothers in 1927, became best selling records.
Bessie's career was cut short by the Depression, which almost put the industry out of business, and the start up of film, which ended Vaudeville, but despite this she kept on performing and touring, sometimes singing in clubs. She 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 of the same name by W. C. Handy, and she sang it 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 at the time she had been 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 were her last recordings, and they shifted her genre from blues to swing.
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. 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 she died that morning. 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 singers Janis Joplin and Juanita Green.
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