Bessie Mae Smith was born in 1894 (or 1892, depending on who you listen to) in Chattanooga. Her early family life is also in question, depending again on who you listen to; we know her father died while Bessie was very young and that her mother died before she was nine. Her older sister then took care of Bessie and her siblings. She began very young (a pre-teen) as a busker, singing and dancing in front of a saloon in the Black section of Chattanooga, while her brother played the guitar. By 1912 she had joined a travelling troupe as a dancer; the troupe already had a star singer in Ma Rainey and Bessie learned much of her stage presence by watching Rainey.
She moved slowly up in her profession, making her first recordings in 1923 in Philadelphia, where she had moved. Her recording "Cemetery Blues" was the first record released by Columbia that was marketed as a "race record." During the 1920s and into the 1930s, Bessie Smith was the most popular female blues singer in the country. Her influence in blues, jazz, and the American scene was be immense.
The Depression and talkies stalled her career until John Hammond signed her in 1933 for his legendary Okeh label. (Hammond's version of the story differed greatly from Smith's.) Nevertheless, Bessie Smith has had a stellar career marred only by personal problems. Smith was a bisexual and her husband left her after one of her affairs was revealed; they never divorced. Smith later entered into a common-law relationship with an old friend. He was driving her car one day in 1937 when he tried to pass a slow moving truck just outside Clarksdale, Mississippi. He misjudged and the car struck the left side of the truck, ripping the top off the automobile. Bessie, riding on the passengers side, suffered internal injuries and had her right arm almost severed. She died at the hospital without regaining consciousness. In a display of her great popularity, seven to ten thousand mourners attended her funeral that Saturday.
In 1970, Janis Joplin and one of Smith's housekeepers purchased a stone for the gravesite. Smith's legal husband had refused to put up a headstone, and had at times pocketed money raised for such a purpose.
She was the Queen of the Blues. Her music still has a strong effect on today's listeners. Not forgotten, but one who should be remembered.
The link will take you 42 of her songs. Enjoy.
For more forgotten music today, go to Scott D. Parker where he will be listing the links.