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Who is Bessie Smith?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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Bessie Smith was an American blues singer of the 1920s and 30s. She was the most famous and successful female blues vocalist of her day and influenced many later singers. In her heyday, Bessie Smith was christened "Empress of the Blues" and became the most highly paid African American entertainer of her era.

Bessie Smith was born in July 1892 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the thirteenth child of Baptist minister William Smith. By the time she was nine, Bessie Smith had lost both her parents, and her older sister, Viola, took over as head of the family. Bessie began singing on the street, accompanied by her brother Andrew on guitar, as a way to raise money for her family. In 1912, her brother Clarence arranged for her audition for a troupe to which he belonged, and Bessie Smith was hired as a dancer. In the following years, she added singing to her public performances.

After making a name for herself through her performances throughout the American South and the East coast, Bessie Smith was signed by Columbia Records in 1923. She continued to tour throughout her career and performed with many greats of the blues genre, including Louis Armstrong. Though the Depression and the growth of cinema heralded the end of vaudeville, Bessie Smith continued to tour. In 1929, she appeared in an unsuccessful Broadway musical entitled Pansy, as well as a short film, St. Louis Blues.

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Bessie Smith's final recordings date from 1933, when producer John Henry Hammond contracted her to perform four songs on Columbia's Okeh label. These recordings were more in the swing style than Smith's earlier work, and though they are popular today, they did not inspire Hammond to retain Bessie Smith on the label. Bessie Smith died on 26 September 1937 from complications following a severe car accident. Her recordings, recently remastered, remain classics of the blues genre, and her style inspired such later vocalists as Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin.

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