When Bessie Smith sang the blues she meant it. Smith (1894-1937) was the greatest and most influential classic blues singer of the 1920s. Dubbed “The Empress of the Blues,” Smith embodied the blues feeling, while her songs, drawing from her sordid lifestyle, rang true with rural and urban audiences alike.
Smith was born on April 15, 1894, in Chattanooga, TN. She spent her early years living in a one room shack in a small area of Chattanooga known as Blue Goose Hollow. These living quarters were shared by both of her parents and all of her siblings, which at the highest count could have been as many as seven.
Her father, a part time Baptist minister, died when Smith was an infant and by the time she reached the age of nine her mother Laura and at least two of her brothers had also passed away. Smith’s sister Viola moved the family into a tenement apartment in a section of Chattanooga known as Tannery Flats. She supported her sisters, brothers, and her own daughter mainly on the small wages she earned from taking in laundry, and was apparently very strict when it came to her siblings.
The family income was minimally supplemented by the odd jobs that Clarence, the eldest brother in the Smith family, took. By 1904, Clarence left town to join the Moses Stokes traveling show and his support left town with him.
Despite the abject poverty that consumed Bessie Smith’s childhood, she is noted as having completed school at least to the eighth grade. During this time Bessie is also said to have started her entertainment career. Standing on the corner singing, accompanied by her younger brother Andrew on guitar; their preferred location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets. They collected spare change that people passing by threw at them.
After hearing his sister perform at an amateur night at the Ivory Theatre, Clarence arranged an audition for Smith with the Moses Stokes Company, and she was hired as a dancer in 1912. She became friends with an older Moses Stokes veteran, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, who was called the Mother of the Blues and likely exercised some influence over the young singer.
Rainey is largely credited with moving the blues away from its traditionally male, country sounds to the more classical, city and women’s style that is associated with the Harlem Renaissance, today. Smith had her own voice, however, and owed her success to no one. If anything, Ma Rainey taught her stage presence.
Bessie Smith’s heavy, throaty vocals were balanced by a delightful sense of timing. Her live shows were a blend of comedy and drama in song. She played on the road for eleven years before recording her first song in 1923. That record sold 780,000 copies, but only made her $125.
During her heyday, she sold hundreds of thousands of records and earned upwards of $2000 per week, which was a queenly sum in the 1920s. She routinely played to packed houses in the South as well as the North and Midwest. Alberta Hunter, a contemporary blues singer of Bessie Smith’s, said of Smith, “I don’t think anybody in the world will ever be able to get as much hurt into one song.” There are some artists who don’t have to do anything other than walk out on stage to create electricity in the air, and Bessie Smith was one of them.