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Bessie Smith


On 15/04/1894: Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, probably. There is a little confusion over her date of birth with the other date indicated in the 1900 census as being July 1892. The April date was the one observed by the Smith family. To earn money for their impoverished family, Bessie and her brother Andrew would busk on the streets of Chattanooga. She would sing and dance whilst he played the guitar. In 1904, Bessie's oldest brother Clarence left home to join a travelling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. If Bessie had been old enough it would have been likely she would have joined but Clarence left without telling her. In 1912, Clarence returned and arranged an audition for Bessie with the managers of the troupe. Bessie was hired as a dancer as the troupe already had the singer Ma Rainey with them.
In 1913, Smith began forming her own act at the 81 Theater, Atlanta. Eventually, Bessie would perform in various chorus lines using the 81 Theater, Atlanta as her base.
By 1920, Smith had established herself in the South and along the East Coast of the US.
In 1923, after signing a recording contract with Columbia Records, Smith began her recording career. She was living in Philadelphia and had been spotted by talent agent Frank Walker who had seen her perform a few years beforehand. Smith's first record "Downhearted Blues" backed with "Gulf Coast Blues" were hits. Her first records were released on Columbia's regular A-series before Columbia established a "race records" series.
Smith became the headliner on the Theater Owners Booking Association circuit.
In 1925, Smith made her first electrical recording with the song "Cake Walking Babies [From Home]".
She would become the highest-paid black entertainer of her day and headline shows with as many as 40 troupers and tour in a custom built railroad car. Columbia would give her the nickname "Queen of the Blues" whilst the press would call her "Empress of the Blues".
In 1929, Smith appeared in the Broadway musical "Pansy". The play was a flop but she would be still praised by critics as being it's only redeeming asset. In the same year, Smith made her only film appearance on the two-reeler "St Louis Blues" based on the W.C Handy song. It was directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, Queens.
In 1933, John Hammond asked Smith to record four sides for Okeh (which had been acquired by Columbia Records in 1925). Smith was paid a non-royalty fee of $37.50 for each selection. They were her last recordings. The backing band included swing musicians such as trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, pianist Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson and bassist Billy Taylor. Benny Goodman would also appear as he dropped in from recording at an adjoining studio. Billie Holiday would make her first recording for Columbia three days later with the same band and would list Smith as a major influence.
Smith would make 160 recordings for Columbia and would work with musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, and Charlie Green.
On 26/09/1937, Smith was critically injured in a car crash on Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her lover Richard Morgan was driving and misjudged the speed of a truck in front of them. Smith was taken to G.T Thomas Afro-American Hospital, Clarksdale where her right arm was amputated and she died that morning.
In 1970, Janis Joplin and Juanita Green paid for a tombstone for Smith's grave.
In 1980, Smith was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
In 1983, Smith's song "Empty Bed Blues" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 1989, Smith was posthumously given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1993, Smith's song "St Louis Blues" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 2001, Smith's song "Downhearted Blues" was included in the list of "Songs of the Century" by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2002, it was included in the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. In 2006, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It is also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one od the 500 songs that shaped rock 'n' roll.
In 2008, Smith was posthumously inducted into the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame.