Listen Live
WOLB Featured Video

At the time of Bessie Smith’s birth in Chattanooga, Tennesee, blacks were so little thought of that no record was made; only the date she gave on her marriage license leads us to give the year as 1894. At the time of her death her funeral was among the largest ever held in Philadelphia.

Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues” as she was called at the time, was a powerful, strong-willed woman who made her mark in history through singing the blues in the 1920’s and 30’s. The road that took her to that title was not an easy one, no romantic ” rags to riches” story such as Horatio Alger made popular in her youth for white boys. For a young black woman from the South, a far different approach was needed, or a different person, and she most certainly was that. This was a woman who fought for what she believed in, and for what (and whoever) was hers, and backed down before nobody.

She had determination which at times became a fiery temper, and no one was exempt from her wrath, which could turn violent; at six feet in height and above 200 pounds in weight, that wrath could be devastating. Yet the same experiences and temperament could show as great loyalty to those around her. And the whole range, with all its passsion, were expressed in her songs, and the way she sang them.

Bessie Smith’s family was poor, and desperately so after the death of her mother, when Bessie was eight. She began her performing career at age nine-so that her now parentless family could live. To the accompaniment of her brother Andrew on guitar, she danced and sang on street corners for change, despite the disapproval of her older sister Viola, who was now heading the family. Even at that age she “could shake the change out of pockets”, as someone remarked; in her full powers, her effect on a crowd was described as “mass hypnotism”.

Her professional career began in 1912 when her brother Clarence arranged an audition with Moses Stokes’ travelling show, with which Clarence had been working since 1904. In that show she met Ma Rainey, generally considered the first woman blues singer. While the exact musical influence of Ma Rainey is a matter of some debate, there is no doubt that she became Bessie’s mentor in the ways of the show world, and perhaps the world more generally.