Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

Bessie Smith

1894-1937 / Singer

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.