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.