On Bessie Smith's birthday, we're celebrating the first lady of blues
There’s a reason Bessie Smith was known as the Empress of the Blues. Her heartfelt songs and gritty glamour introduced the sounds of African American music to large audiences in the 1920s and 30s. She rose from poverty to become one of the highest-paid performers of the 1920s and 30s — a major accomplishment for a black woman in the era of Jim Crow. And today, we celebrate her birthday.
Born on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith was one of seven children in a poor family. She was orphaned at the age of nine, and sang on the streets for extra money. At the age of 17, she started performing in local vaudeville shows, including one that featured the blues singer Ma Rainey, who became Bessie’s friend and mentor (and, it’s rumored, her occasional lover).
In 1923, after a decade performing on the road, Bessie recorded the single “Down-Hearted Blues.” The song, about her unrequited love for a cruel man, launched her into superstardom and blues into the American mainstream.
Bessie Smith popularized the genre, paving the way for artists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as for rock and roll, which is based on blues rhythms and melodies.
Some of Bessie Smith’s best-known hits are “I Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Careless Love” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” Many of these songs have become standards, covered repeatedly by blues and jazz performers to this day. But my personal favorites are “Me and my Gin” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
As music styles began to change in the 1930s, Bessie’s career began to drag. She tragically died after a car accident in Mississippi when she was just 43. But today, she’s regarded as one of the most important American musicians of the 20th century, and as one of the most important blues musicians of all time. She has been featured on postage stamps and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and her music is preserved in the Library of Congress.
In May, HBO is releasing a biopic about Bessie starring Queen Latifah. It looks like a worthy concoction bursting with sequins, feathers, bootleg liquor, and a star-studded supporting cast, including Michael Kenneth Williams as Smith’s husband Jack Gee, and Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey. Here’s to Bessie Smith’s legacy and another 121 years of the blues.