I doubt that anyone reading this actually remembers hearing Bessie Smith in her prime. After all, the lady known as the ‘Empress of the Blues’ died way back in 1937. But she is a much-revered member of the Grammy Hall Of Fame (established to honor artists from the early days) and is now recognized as the first modern female blues star.
Bessie Smith rose from humble beginnings, growing up as an orphan in 1890s era Chattanooga, but she did have some support from older siblings. In fact, as she grew into a teenager it was one of her brothers who helped get her a job with a traveling musical group, beginning her professional singing career.
While performing in the years before and during World War I, Bessie spent some time appearing alongside early blues singer Ma Rainey, and by the 1920s she was applying what she’d learned in her own show in the New York area. Over the next few years she not only enjoyed great success in live appearances, but also as a recording star — a medium that was beginning to really take off.
By the late 1920s music fans were beginning to move on to other things and Bessie’s career began to slow, although she did appear in a musical short, St. Louis Blues. (See rare excerpt below.) She struggled to maintain some career momentum in the early years of the Great Depression, but by the mid-1930s things were looking up. She had made some well-received appearances around New York and was in line to star in a special concert at Carnegie Hall when she died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. She was just 43.