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Bessie Smith
Produced by Rolando Arrieta

Bessie Smith  

No blues singer can escape the influence of Bessie Smith, "The Empress of the Blues." She gave the music its raw, regal poignancy -- and marketability. Her feverish growls and testifying delivery has informed nearly every facet of African-American music, from Mahalia Jackson to Mary J. Blige.

Listen to composer Gunther Schuller, trumpeter Doc Cheatham, singers Koko Taylor and Susannah McCorkle, and writer Chris Albertson talk about Bessie Smith's legacy

Born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tenn., Bessie took to the stage early in life. As a young girl, she would audition in local amateur vaudeville competitions and by the time she reached 18, she was touring as a dancer. Incorporating a full arsenal of talent -- singing, dancing, and slapstick comedy -- Bessie was a consummate entertainer.

St. Louis Blues poster  

Smith often toured the T.O.B.A. (Theatres Owner's Booking Association) circuit, theatres that catered exclusively to African Americans during the days of legal segregation. In 1929, she starred in the 17-minute movie, St. Louis Blues.

As a recording artist, Smith made her first sides in 1922, but the tapes were lost. A year later, she recorded "Down Hearted Blues" for Columbia Records, and it became her first hit. She was soon the highest paid black entertainer in the country. Her celebrity status afforded opportunities to play with top jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Coleman Hawkins.

Listen to writer Albert Murray and Schuller describe Bessie's rise to fame

Smith thrived in jazz's golden age, but fell on hard times during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The stock market crash of 1929 greatly affected her income. She also had a few other troubles that affected her career: heavy drinking, a failed marriage, and severe emotional problems.

Listen to record producer John Hammond recall working with Bessie during the Great Depression

When Smith died of injuries suffered from a car wreck in 1937, her legend began to grow. Since her untimely death, there have been numerous stage plays, books, essays, and songs written about her extraordinary and sadly brief life and musical career.

Listen to blues singer Koko Taylor tell how Smith influences contemporary blues singers


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for The Essential Bessie Smith

ListenListen to the NPR 100 entry for Bessie and Satchmo's 1925 version of the W.C. Handy classic "West End Blues"

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site --