Dubbed the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith was one of the most successful black stars of the 1920s, and one of a handful of women singers of the era who brought the Blues to a wider audience.
Born in 1894, Smith had lost her mother, father and a brother by the age of 9, and was raised by her older sister in Chatanooga, Tenn. With limited job prospects, Smith and her brother Andrew began playing for spare change on the street to support the family. In 1912, Smith joined a traveling vaudeville show as a dancer and singer, and by the early 1920s she had become one of the most popular Blues performers in vaudeville, lauded for her powerful singing voice and emotional, nuanced delivery.
The major record companies of the early 1920’s had released very few records by black artists, but the growing success of “race records” — Blues recordings marketed to black audiences — could not be ignored. Smith was signed by Columbia Records in 1923, and her first 78 release, "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Down Hearted Blues,” sold more than 750,000 copies. Her recordings with many of the great Jazz musicians of that era, including Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong, combined the earthiness of Blues and some of the sophistication of Jazz.
By the mid-1930’s, with the country in the midst of the Great Depression, Smith’s classic Blues style was falling out of favor, as “talkies” (movies with sound) supplanted vaudeville and big-band Swing music rose in popularity. Smith struggled to adapt, but remained a popular live act and was beginning a comeback when her life was cut short by an automobile accident in 1937.