Biography of Famous Popular Singer Bessie Smith Part 1

About famous popular singer Bessie Smith, biography and history of the artist.

Bessie Smith (1894-1937). Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues," was born in Chattanooga, Tenn. She was one of 7 children of a black Baptist part-time preacher. William Smith died shortly after her birth, leaving the family in abject poverty. Her mother and brother died when she was 8. The eldest sister supported the family with various domestic or menial jobs and the other children contributed what they could. At the ripe age of 9, the future queen of the blues made her debut on the streets of Chattanooga singing for nickels and dimes. The "Poor Man's Blues," which she recorded in 1928, recalls those early years: "Mister rich man, rich man, open up your heart and mind, Give the poor man a chance, help stop these hard, hard times/Please listen to my pleadin', cause I can't stand these hard times long,/They'll make an honest man do things that you know is wrong."

Bessie's brother Clarence had signed on as a dancer and comedian in a traveling vaudeville revue, and in 1912, when the show arrived in Chattanooga, Bessie was signed on as a dancer.

By 1922, she had established a solid reputation through the South and along the Eastern seaboard. It was the end of the war (200,000 black soldiers had fought on the European front to make the world safe for democracy), and a new spirit and morality were on the rise. Blues music began to gain in popularity. The 1st "race" record--that is, a recording made by a black performer--had been issued in 1921. The record companies originally assumed that black music would be of no interest to their white customers: Victor even went so far as to scratch the word "colored" in the recording wax.

Bessie Smith made her 1st recording in 1923. The song was "Down Hearted Blues" and it was an immediate success. Much to the surprise of Columbia, 780,000 discs were sold in less than 6 months. Company officials had once rejected that same voice as too "rough."

Shortly after her earliest recording sessions, Bessie began a triumphant southern tour, accompanied by a sizable entourage of back-up performers and stagehands, in a bright yellow-and-green railroad car with "Queen of the Blues" stenciled on its side. A large portion of her audience was to be found in small farming communities.

In the early 1920s it was difficult for black performers to be booked into white theaters. Although her recordings spread her reputation throughout the white community, her performances were officially segregated: "Command" performances were arranged at some all-white theaters, but Bessie Smith mainly played a black theater circuit. Her music contains a quality of hovering near both the heights and the depths that spoke to millions of people, sparked off near-riots at her performances, and established her with an almost legendary reputation. "I've got the world in a jug," she sang in "Down Hearted Blues, "and the stopper's in my hand."

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