Bessie Smith – “Empress of the Blues”

Bessie Smith, 1936, by Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress

Bessie Smith, 1936, by Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress (source)

On September 26, 1937, a fatal car crash ended the life of one of the greatest singers of the jazz age, Bessie Smith. Once she began working professionally, she never stopped, and her powerful voice made the transition well as recording technology became more advanced and with the advent of the radio. By the time Columbia Records signed her in 1923, Smith had an established reputation along the Eastern seaboard and in the South where she toured.

Census records give conflicting dates for Smith’s birth, but the date that family members agree on is April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By the time she was nine years old, she had lost both of her parents and was being cared for by an older sister, Viola. Money was difficult to come by and Bessie and her brother Andrew began performing on the streets. In 1912, her brother Clarence arranged an audition for Bessie with a traveling troupe he had been performing with. Although hired as a dancer, by the next year she began forming her own act with “81” Theater in Atlanta as her home base and touring on the Theater Owners Booking Association circuit.

Smith made 160 recordings for Columbia Records, accompanied by some of the finest musicians of the day including Louis Armstrong. She appeared in one Broadway musical, Pansy, which flopped, but where she received good reviews. In her only film appearance, St. Louis Blues, she performed the title song. Even during the Great Depression, as vaudeville was ending and the recording industry declined, Smith never stopped touring and performing in clubs.

On September 26, 1937, Smith was traveling with Richard Morgan, the man she had been living with after separating from her husband in 1929, when they were in a car accident. A Memphis surgeon was one of the first on the scene and able to stabilize Smith. Her right arm was almost severed and she had minor head injuries, but extensive crush injuries from the collision. She was taken to the hospital where her arm was amputated, but she never regained consciousness and died the same day.

When Bessie Smith’s funeral was held in Philadelphia the next week, her body had to be moved to the Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners for the viewing. Her husband, Jack Gee, whom she had never divorced, refused to allow a tombstone to mark her grave, even keeping some of the money raised for the purpose. But in 1970, a tombstone was finally erected, paid for by Janis Joplin and Juanita Green.

The press of the day referred to Smith as the “Empress of the Blues” and Billie Holliday names her as a major influence on her career. Several of her recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Her song “Downhearted Blues” is listed in the Recording Industry of America’s “Songs of the Century” and it is listed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock’n’roll.

Find out what else happened on  September 26 in Women’s History.

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