Bessie Smith singing with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in "St. Louis Blues."
Bessie Smith was known as the "Empress of the Blues" for
the majesty and power with which she belted out tunes. Her unforgettably
amazing voice established her as the classical blues singer.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she was coached by blues singer
Ma Rainey, Smith was touring the South by the time she was in her
teens. In 1923 she headed for the recording studios of New York City.
Her first release, "Down-Hearted Blues," sold more than
750,000 copies in one month. In coming years she would record with
all the top jazz musicians, including Fletcher Henderson, James P.
Johnson, and Louis Armstrong.
For the most part, only African-American audiences were privileged
to catch her earliest live performances. Smith sang at speakeasies,
rent parties, and "buffet flats" (private apartments that
blacks rented for the night in the era of hotel segregation). She
also appeared at the Lafayette Theatre, the Lincoln Theatre, and a
summer tent show dubbed the "Harlem Frolics."
Standing over six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, Smith
had an imposing stage presence. Her powerful physique was matched
by the strength and sweep of her voice—and personal manner.
Smith's fierce business acumen, toughness, and heavy drinking set
her in stark contrast to the petite, demure white singers of the day.
Bessie Smith's evocative voice and style ultimately captivated black
and white audiences alike. Her electrifying stage presence served
her well in film and theater, too: Smith starred in the movie St.
Louis Blues in 1929 and substituted for Billie Holiday in the
musical show Stars Over Broadway in 1935.