Blues Musician. Bessie was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee to poor parents both of whom were dead by the time she was nine years old. Bessie Smith started her singing career on the street corner with her brother Andrew. They sang in hope of collecting pocket change to support the family. An older brother, Charles had joined a travailing theater company and upon his return to Chattanooga Bessie was given a job as a dancer with the Moses Stokes Theatre Company in 1912. Among others in the company was Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. Ma was one of the first classic blues singers. Although Ma can not be credited with teaching Bessie to sing she did teach her stage presence and how to take advantage of the part of your vocal range best suited to the pre-microphone era. In the early 1920's Colombia records started a race records division and Bessie debuted with "Downhearted Blues" and "Gulf Coast Blues", which sold 780,000 copies in six months. In time she recorded with Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman and Louis Armstrong. Her rendition of "St. Louis Blues" with Armstrong is considered by most critics to be one of finest recordings of the 1920s. Miss Smith wrote many blues songs and recorded even more. She appeared on Broadway in the musical Pansy (critics at the time said she was its only asset). Bessie appeared is one film a two-reeler based on W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." For years the account of her death was falsified to either make it more dramatic or to highlight the cost of southern racism. Bessie was killed in an automobile accident between Memphis and Clarksdale Mississippi while traveling between concert appearances. The rumor was she was taken to an all white hospital but was refused admittance because of her race. She then died while the ambulance searched for a colored hospital. Edward Albee's 1959 play The Death of Bessie Smith helped spread this story but did help revive the popularity of her music. The truth of her death is her car rear-ended a slow moving truck on the dark road. She had an arm nearly severed and due to blood loss was in shock. A passing doctor stopped and helped while her companion Richard Morgan, uncle to Lionel Hampton, got an ambulance to take her to Clarksdale's Afro-Hospital where she never recovered. Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin are among the singers who credit Bessie Smith with influencing their career. In 1970 Janice Joplin helped secure a marker for Bessie Smith's till then unmarked grave.
Bio by: Paul G. Healy
Robert Lyle Stahlecker
The Greatest Blues Singer In The World Will Never Stop Singing—Bessie Smith‐1895‐1937