Known as the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith was not afraid to stand in her sexuality.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie was the youngest of seven children. After the deaths of her parents, Bessie, and her siblings, lived in poverty and were raised by an aunt. At a young age, she and her brother became street performers. He played the guitar, and she sang. After perfecting her sound, Bessie joined a traveling stage show and became the mentee under the Mother of Blues, Ma Rainey. Ma Rainey taught Bessie about doing business in the music industry and how to command a stage. By the time Bessie was twenty-four years old, she was a solo artist touring throughout the south and the east coast.
Bessie’s 1923 song, Down-Hearted Blues, put her in the spotlight after she signed a contract with Columbia Records. She became the highest-paid Black entertainer of her time. She sang about poverty, racism, sexism, love, and female sexuality.
Bessie was married to Jack Gee from 1923 until 1929, when she discovered Jack’s affair with a singer, Gertrude Saunders. Jack was unable to handle the show business lifestyle and Bessie’s bisexuality. Throughout her life and career, Bessie was always true to herself. She drank and was open about her romantic relationships with men and women.
Her discography contains 160 recorded songs. She was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1937, while on her way to Chattanooga, Bessie was in a fatal car accident in Mississippi. Her funeral was held in Philadelphia, where she had resided since 1923. Over 5,000 people attended her services.
In 1970, musician Janis Joplin purchased a headstone for Bessie’s unmarked grave.
Listen to Bessie’s song, Empty Bed Blues which is posted below.