Born 15 April 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith never knew her father (who died while she was very young), and her mother passed away when she was ten. Raised by an older sister and growing up poor, she first performed at an amateur contest when she was ten, often raising money for the family by singing in the streets with her brother backing her on guitar. In 1912 when Smith was eighteen, she joined the Moses Stokes troupe as a dancer. The company’s vocalist was Ma Rainey, who is considered the first female blues singer and was an inspiration to Smith. Within a year or two, Smith was singing at Atlanta’s “81” Theatre and quickly becoming a popular attraction. She worked regularly on the road with a variety of companies and gained a strong reputation throughout the South for her powerful voice and highly expressive way of singing the blues. By 1920 she was heading her own show.
The blues craze began in 1920 when Mamie Smith had a major bestseller in “Crazy Blues”. Suddenly the record labels, which had previously excluded black artists from the recording studios, went out of their way to document scores of female blues singers in hopes of duplicating Mamie Smith’s success. Among the many discoveries were Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox and Ma Rainey, but none made a greater impact than Bessie Smith.
After auditioning unsuccessfully for the Edison label and recording two selections for Columbia on 15 February 1923 that for unknown reasons were rejected, Bessie Smith made her recording début the following day. Her very first recording, Alberta Hunter’s “Downhearted Blues”, became a major hit and within a year she was the most famous and popular of the classic blues singers. That seemed only fitting because she had the strongest and most memorable voice. While many other singers on early recordings were defeated by the inferior technical quality of both the recording equipment and their accompanists, the Empress simply overrode both. Few other singers from 1923 are listenable today but Smith, whether introducing “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” or putting a great deal of passion into “Jailhouse Blues” and “Mistreatin’ Daddy”, Smith was way ahead of her contemporaries. In fact, she can be considered not only the finest blues singer of the 1920s but the first female jazz singer.
On 14 January 1925, Bessie Smith recorded the first of her sessions with Louis Armstrong. She may have preferred Joe Smith, but there was no better musical partner for her (at least among horn players) than the 23-year old Armstrong, who answered her statements with note-bending ideas that were both supportive and competitive. In 1925, Bessie Smith had great success with her show in Chicago; she toured in the South, North and Midwest, and she made as much as $2,000 a week, a tremendous amount of money at the time, especially for a black performer. She was at the height of her powers, both artistically and commercially. And although there would be some hard times later in life, Bessie Smith would remain the unchallenged Empress of the Blues up until the time of her death on 26 September 1937. No one ever sang the blues with her power and passion.
-- Scott Yanow