Bessie Smith Biography

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By most accounts, Bessie Smith was a rough, crude, violent woman. She was also one of the greatest Blues singers of the 1920s. The road that took her to the title “Empress of the Blues” was not an easy one. It was certainly not one of the romantic "rags to riches" tales that Horatio Alger made popular during her time. For a young black woman from the South the journey was anything but easy, and it would require a special kind of person, and Bessie Smith was definitely that. She was a woman who fought for what she believed in and backed down to no one. She had a boundless determination, which sometimes became a flaming hot temper, and no one was exempt from it. Yet these same experiences and temperament also expressed great loyalty to those around her. The entire range, with all its passion, was expressed in her songs, and the way she sang them.
Bessie Smith was born into a poor black family in the segregated south. The precise date of her birth is unknown, and most accounts list the year as 1894, but others state 1898 or 1900. According to the 1900 census, she was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July, 1892. That date contradicts what is recorded on her wedding certificate and confirmed by family members, which is April 15, 1894. That 1900 census also provides facts regarding the size of Smith's family that conflict with many published biographies. The censuses of 1870, 1880 and 1900 list Bessie Smith as the thirteenth child of William Smith and the tenth of Laura (Owens) Smith. This information does not coincide with accounts given by family and school mates interviewed by a Smiths biographer, Chris Albertson. According to his book, Bessie, William Smith was a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher who died before Bessie could...

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...skyrocketed, along with her record sales, as her music is, to this day, continually rediscovered. Many later musicians were influenced by her work, such as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, through whose efforts Bessie finally received a headstone. In Janis Joplin’s words of tribute, “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.”
Bessie Smith’s forceful vocal delivery and command of the genre earned her the title of “Empress of the Blues”. Her singing displayed a poignantly phrased, unflinchingly delivered and arguably, a most definitive grasp of the blues. She was a multifaceted entertainer who danced, acted and performed comedy routines with her touring company. She was the highest-paid black performer of her day and reached a level of success greater than that of any African-American entertainer before her.
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