Bessie Smith

(1894—1937) American blues singer

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Black US blues singer. Known as the ‘Empress of the Blues’, this tall handsome woman created a style that was followed by many jazz singers, including Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she came from a very poor family. As a child she began her singing career, in which she was supported by another black singer, Ma Rainey (1886–1939). She started touring with Ma Rainey's Rabbit Foot Minstrels in about 1912. Even though the troupe was successful, Bessie Smith was ignored by record companies as too primitive. However, in 1923 she was discovered by Clarence Williams and her ‘Downhearted Blues’ became a best-seller in the new market for ‘race’ music. In the late 1920s she was one of the most popular black entertainers in America but by the time she died as a result of injuries received in a car crash, the blues were out of fashion and her alcoholism had made her difficult to engage.

She made a short film, St Louis Blues, in 1929. About 160 of her recordings survive, all of which were reissued in the early 1970s. In 1960 a play by Edward Albee, The Death of Bessie Smith, was based on the suggestion made at the time that if she had been white, more prompt and efficient medical attention after her accident could have saved her life.

Subjects: Music — United States History.

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