empress of blues

BESSIE SMITH 1894–1937

One of the greatest American singers of the 20s and 30s, known for her powerful delivery and often called “The Empress of the Blues.” Her parents had both died by the time she was a teenager, and to earn money, Smith began performing on the streets of Chattanooga with her brother. In 1912, she joined a traveling troupe that boasted the successful blues singer Ma Rainey—Rainey would become her good friend and mentor. Though she started as a chorus dancer, Smith soon developed her own act, and in 1923 she signed a record deal with Columbia, releasing the first album on their new “race records” series. With the popularity of her song “Downhearted Blues,” she became the most successful blues singer of the time, earning enough to live lavishly and travel town to town in her own private train. She married her husband Jack Gee around the time her first album was released, but it was a rocky relationship, with affairs on both sides. Most of Smith’s infidelities were with other women in her troupe, which sparked frequent fights, and when Smith discovered her husband had been sleeping with another singer, they separated. During the Great Depression, the recording industry took a hit, as did Smith’s career. She started to make a comeback by transitioning into swing music, but it was cut short when she was killed in a car accident. For years her grave was left unmarked, until Janis Joplin bought her a tombstone in 1970.

Today In Black Music History for September 26th
  1. 1879 - A reorganized troupe of Fisk Jubilee Singers sets out for its first tour under the direction of George White and Frederick Loudin.

  2. 1937 “The Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith dies from injuries sustained in an automobile accident at the age of 43

  3. 1948 Bass Guitarist Tiran Porter, the lone African-American member of The Doobie Brothers, is born in Hawthorne, California

  4. 1965 Cindy Ann Herron-Braggs, one of the founding members of the R&B/Pop quartet En Vogue is born in San Francisco, California

  5. 1972 R&B Singer Shawn Stockman, a member of the R&B group Boyz II Men, is born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

  6. 1987 Whitney Houston’s "Didn’t We Almost Have It All”, the second single from Houston’s second album “Whitney”, begins a two-week run at the top of the pop charts

  7. 1987 Michael Jackson’s “Bad” Album would debut at number one on Billboard’s Hot 200 Album chart, where it would remain for six weeks.

  8. 1998 American Jazz singer Betty Carter, born Lillie Mae Jones, dies from complications of pancreatic cancer in 1998 at the age of 69

  9. 2008 Garfield High School of Seattle Washington’s Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center is officially dedicated to Quincy Jones.

  10. 2009 Edgecombe Avenue and 160th Street in Washington Heights, Manhattan, are renamed as Paul Robeson Boulevard and Count Basie Place. The corner is the location of 555 Edgecombe Avenue, also known as the Paul Robeson Home, a National Historic Landmark building where Count Basie and Paul Robeson lived

HBO’s film on blues singer Bessie Smith starring Queen Latifah will premiere on May 16.

Latifah stars in Bessie as the Empress of the Blues, one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s. Latifah recorded many of Smith’s better-known songs for the film, and a soundtrack release is expected.

At the winter Television Critics Association press conferences, Latifah said she was glad the project took 22 years to get made. “When the project came my way, I don’t think I had the life journey that went along with it. I got to live more of the blues,” she said.

Directed by Dee Rees, the film focuses on Smith escaping her turbulent personal life to become one of the first major blues stars. She died after a car accident in 1937 at the age of 43.

Mo'Nique stars as blues legend Ma Rainey and Bryan Greenberg portrays John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive who signed Smith. The film also stars Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander, Tory Kittles, Mike Epps, Oliver Platt and Charles S. Dutton. Evyen Klean is the music supervisor.

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ALL HAIL THE QUEEN! HBO is showing a lot of commercials for “Bessie” now, so excited!

Click the play button above to watch

I’ve been a HUGE fan of Queen Latifah since her first single came out, ‘Princess of the Posse / Wrath of My Madness.” And she hasn’t stopped since then!

I can’t WAIT to see what she does in the Bessie Smith role!

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Check out the new trailer for director/screenwriter Dee Rees’ film Bessie, starring Queen Latifah as acclaimed jazz singer Bessie Smith.

Dee Rees and Queen Latifah are both Sundance alum.  Latifah attended the Festival in 2007 with Life Support, while Rees screened her short Pariah in 2008, attended the 2008 Directors Labs to workshop her feature Pariah, and premiered the feature during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where she accepted the Excellence in Cinematography Award for her cinematographer Bradford Young (on the phone pictured above).

Bessie premieres May 16 on HBO.

Photos by George Pimentel / WireImage, Fred Hayes, and Jemal Countess / WireImage