Bessie Smith

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Bessie Smith
Smith in 1936 (photograph by Carl Van Vechten)
Smith in 1936
(photograph by Carl Van Vechten)
Background information
Birth nameBessie Smith
Also known asEmpress of the Blues
Born(1894-04-15)April 15, 1894
Chattanooga, Tennessee, U.S.
DiedSeptember 26, 1937(1937-09-26) (aged 43)
Clarksdale, Mississippi, U.S.
Occupation(s)Singer, actress
Years active1912–37
Associated acts

Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer widely renowned during the Jazz Age. Nicknamed the "Empress of the Blues", she was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and was a major influence on fellow blues singers, as well as jazz vocalists.[1]

Born in Alabama, her parents died when she was young and the children scraped by doing street performing in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She began touring and performed in a group that included "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey, and then went out on her own. Her successful recording career began in the 1920s, until an automobile accident ended her life at age 43.

Early life[edit]

Portrait of Bessie Smith, 1936
Smith in 1936

The 1900 census indicates that her family reported that Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July 1892.[2][3] The 1910 census gives her age as 16,[4] and a birth date of April 15, 1894 which appears on subsequent documents and was observed as her birthday by the Smith family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but later interviews with Smith's family and contemporaries contain no mention of them against her siblings.

She was the daughter of Laura (born Snow) and William Urie, a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a "minister of the gospel," in Moulton, Lawrence County, Alabama). He died while his daughter was too young to remember him. By the time Bessie was nine, her mother and a brother had also died. Her older sister Viola took charge of caring for her siblings.[5] Consequently, Bessie was unable to gain an education because her parents had died and her elder sister was taking care of her.[6]

Due to her parents' death and her poverty, Bessie experienced a "wretched childhood."[7] To earn money for their impoverished household, Bessie and her brother Andrew busked on the streets of Chattanooga. She sang and danced as he played the guitar. They often performed on "street corners for pennies,"[7] and their habitual location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets, in the heart of the city's African-American community.

In 1904, her oldest brother Clarence left home and joined a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud. "That's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child."[8]

In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe and arranged an audition for his sister with the troupe managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher. Bessie was hired as a dancer rather than a vocalist since the company already included popular singer Ma Rainey.[7] Contemporary accounts indicate that, while Ma Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, she likely helped her develop a stage presence.[9] Smith eventually moved on to performing in chorus lines, making the "81" Theater in Atlanta her home base. She also performed in shows on the black-owned Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) circuit and would become one of its major attractions.


Portrait of Smith by Carl Van Vechten

Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theater. By 1920, she had established a reputation in the South and along the East Coast. At the time, sales of over 100,000 copies of "Crazy Blues," recorded for Okeh Records by the singer Mamie Smith (no relation), pointed to a new market. The recording industry had not directed its product to black people, but the success of the record led to a search for female blues singers.

Hoping to capitalize on this new market, Smith began her recording career in 1923.[10] Bessie Smith was signed to Columbia Records in 1923 by Frank Walker, a talent agent who had seen her perform years earlier. Her first session for Columbia was on February 15, 1923; it was engineered by Dan Hornsby. For most of 1923, her records were issued on Columbia's regular A-series. When the company established a "race records" series, Smith's "Cemetery Blues" (September 26, 1923) was the first issued. Both sides of her first record, "Downhearted Blues" backed with "Gulf Coast Blues", were hits (an earlier recording of "Downhearted Blues" by its co-writer Alberta Hunter had previously been released by Paramount Records).[11]

As her popularity increased, Smith became a headliner on the T.O.B.A. circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s.[12] Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter and performing in tent shows the rest of the year, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day and began traveling in her own 72-foot-long railroad car.[13][7] Columbia's publicity department nicknamed her "Queen of the Blues," but the national press soon upgraded her title to "Empress of the Blues." Smith's music stressed independence, fearlessness, and sexual freedom, implicitly arguing that working-class women did not have to alter their behavior to be worthy of respect.[14]

Despite her success, neither she nor her music was accepted in all circles. She once auditioned for Black Swan Records (W. E. B. Du Bois was on its board of directors) and was dismissed because she was considered too rough as she supposedly stopped singing to spit.[14] The businessmen involved with Black Swan Records were surprised when she became the most successful diva because her style was rougher and coarser than Mamie Smith.[15] Even her admirers—white and black—considered her a "rough" woman (i.e., working class or even "low class").

Smith had a strong contralto voice,[16] which recorded well from her first session, which was conducted when recordings were made acoustically. The advent of electrical recording made the power of her voice even more evident. Her first electrical recording was "Cake Walking Babies [From Home]", recorded on May 5, 1925.[17] Smith also benefited from the new technology of radio broadcasting, even on stations in the segregated South. For example, after giving a concert to a white-only audience at a theater in Memphis, Tennessee, in October 1923, she performed a late-night concert on station WMC, which was well received by the radio audience.[18] Musicians and composers like Danny Barker and Thomas Dorsey compared her presence and delivery to a preacher because of her ability to enrapture and move her audience.[19]

She made 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, notably Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, and Charlie Green. A number of Smith's recordings—such as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" with the Dorsey Brothers orchestra in 1927—quickly became among the best-selling records of their respective release years.[20][21]


Smith's career was cut short by the Great Depression, which nearly put the recording industry out of business, and the advent of sound in film, which spelled the end of vaudeville. She never stopped performing, however. The days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, but Smith continued touring and occasionally sang in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway musical, Pansy. The play was a flop; top critics said she was its only asset.

St. Louis Blues[edit]

St. Louis Blues, Smith's only film,1929

In November 1929, Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler, St. Louis Blues, based on composer W. C. Handy's song of the same name. In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, Queens, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, the pianist James P. Johnson and a string section—a musical environment radically different from that of any of her recordings.

Swing era[edit]

In 1933, John Henry Hammond, who also mentored Billie Holiday, asked Smith to record four sides for Okeh (which had been acquired by Columbia Records in 1925). He claimed to have found her in semi-obscurity, "working as a hostess in a speakeasy on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia."[22] Smith worked at Art's Cafe on Ridge Avenue, but not as a hostess and not until the summer of 1936. In 1933, when she made the Okeh sides, she was still touring. Hammond was known for his selective memory and gratuitous embellishments.[23]

Smith was paid a non-royalty fee of $37.50 for each selection on these Okeh sides, which were her last recordings. Made on November 24, 1933, they serve as a hint of the transformation she made in her performances as she shifted her blues artistry into something that fit the swing era. The relatively modern accompaniment is notable. The band included such swing era musicians as the trombonist Jack Teagarden, the trumpeter Frankie Newton, the tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, the pianist Buck Washington, the guitarist Bobby Johnson, and the bassist Billy Taylor. Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in the adjoining studio, dropped by and is barely audible on one selection. Hammond was not entirely pleased with the results, preferring to have Smith revisit her old blues sound. "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)", both written by Wesley Wilson, were among her most popular recordings.[5]


Automobile collision[edit]

On September 26, 1937, Smith was critically injured in a car crash on U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi.[7] Her lover, Richard Morgan, was driving, and misjudged the speed of a slow-moving truck ahead of him. Skid marks at the scene suggested that Morgan tried to avoid the truck by driving around its left side, but he hit the rear of the truck side-on at high speed. The tailgate of the truck sheared off the wooden roof of Smith's old Packard vehicle. Smith, who was in the passenger seat, probably with her right arm or elbow out the window, took the full brunt of the impact. Morgan escaped without injuries.

The first person on the scene was a Memphis surgeon, Dr. Hugh Smith (no relation). In the early 1970s, Hugh Smith gave a detailed account of his experience to Bessie's biographer Chris Albertson. This is the most reliable eyewitness testimony about the events surrounding her death.

Arriving at the scene, Hugh Smith examined Smith, who was lying in the middle of the road with obviously severe injuries. He estimated she had lost about a half pint of blood, and immediately noted a major traumatic injury: her right arm was almost completely severed at the elbow.[24] He stated that this injury alone did not cause her death. Though the light was poor, he observed only minor head injuries. He attributed her death to extensive and severe crush injuries to the entire right side of her body, consistent with a sideswipe collision.[25]

Henry Broughton, a fishing partner of Dr. Smith's, helped him move Bessie Smith to the shoulder of the road. Dr. Smith dressed her arm injury with a clean handkerchief and asked Broughton to go to a house about 500 feet off the road to call an ambulance. By the time Broughton returned, about 25 minutes later, Bessie Smith was in shock.

Second accident[edit]

Time passed with no sign of the ambulance, so Hugh Smith suggested that they take her into Clarksdale in his car. He and Broughton had almost finished clearing the back seat when they heard the sound of a car approaching at high speed. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the oncoming car failed to stop and plowed into his car at full speed. It sent his car careening into Bessie Smith's overturned Packard, completely wrecking it. The oncoming car ricocheted off Hugh Smith's car into the ditch on the right, barely missing Broughton and Bessie Smith.[26]

The young couple in the new car did not have life-threatening injuries. Two ambulances then arrived from Clarksdale—one from the black hospital, summoned by Broughton, the other from the white hospital, acting on a report from the truck driver, who had not seen the accident victims.

Bessie Smith was taken to the G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness. After her death, an often repeated but now discredited story emerged that she died because a whites-only hospital in Clarksdale refused to admit her. The jazz writer and producer John Hammond gave this account in an article in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat magazine. The circumstances of Smith's death and the rumor promoted by Hammond formed the basis for Edward Albee's 1959 one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith.[7][27]

"The Bessie Smith ambulance would not have gone to a white hospital; you can forget that," Hugh Smith told Albertson. "Down in the Deep South Cotton Belt, no ambulance driver, or white driver, would even have thought of putting a colored person off in a hospital for white folks."[28]

Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia a little over a week later, on October 4, 1937. Her body was originally laid out at Upshur's funeral home. As word of her death spread through Philadelphia's black community, the body had to be moved to the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday, October 3.[29] Contemporary newspapers reported that her funeral was attended by about seven thousand people. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearby Sharon Hill.[30] Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone for his estranged wife, once or twice pocketing money raised for that purpose.[31]

Unmarked grave[edit]

Smith's grave was unmarked until a tombstone was erected on August 7, 1970, paid for by the singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who as a child had done housework for Smith.[32] Dory Previn wrote a song about Joplin and the tombstone, "Stone for Bessie Smith", for her album Mythical Kings and Iguanas. The Afro-American hospital, now the Riverside Hotel, was the site of the dedication of the fourth historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.[33]

Personal life[edit]

In 1923, Smith was living in Philadelphia when she met Jack Gee,[7] a security guard, whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first record was being released. During the marriage, Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of the day, heading her own shows, which sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers, and touring in her own custom-built railroad car.[7] Their marriage was stormy with infidelity on both sides, including numerous female sex partners for Bessie.[34] Gee was impressed by the money but never adjusted to show business life or to Smith's bisexuality. In 1929, when she learned of his affair with another singer, Gertrude Saunders, Smith ended the relationship, although neither of them sought a divorce.

Smith later entered a common-law marriage with an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton's uncle. She stayed with him until her death.[5]

Musical themes[edit]

Songs like Jail House Blues, Work House Blues, Prison Blues, Sing Sing Prison Blues and Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair dealt critically with social issues of the day such as chain gangs, the convict lease system and capital punishment. Poor Man's Blues and Washwoman's Blues are considered by scholars to be an early form of African American protest music.[35]

What becomes evident after listening to her music and studying her lyrics is that Smith emphasized and channeled a subculture within the African-American working class. Additionally, she incorporated commentary on social issues like poverty, intra-racial conflict, and female sexuality into her lyrics. Her lyrical sincerity and public behavior were not widely accepted as appropriate expressions for African American women; therefore, her work was often written off as distasteful or unseemly, rather than as an accurate representation of the African-American experience.

Smith's work challenged elitist norms by encouraging working-class women to embrace their right to drink, party, and satisfy their sexual needs as a means of coping with stress and dissatisfaction in their daily lives. Smith advocated for a wider vision of African-American womanhood beyond domesticity, piety, and conformity; she sought empowerment and happiness through independence, sassiness, and sexual freedom.[14] Although Smith was a voice for many minority groups and one of the most gifted blues performers of her time, the themes in her music were precocious, which led to many believing that her work was undeserving of serious recognition.

Hit records[edit]

There was no official national record chart in the US until 1936. The notional positions below have been formulated post facto by Joel Whitburn.

Year Single US
[36][nb 1]
1923 "Downhearted Blues" 1
"Gulf Coast Blues" 5
"Aggravatin' Papa" 12
"Baby Won't You Please Come Home" 6
"T'ain't Nobody's Biz-Ness if I Do" 9
1925 "The St. Louis Blues" 3
"Careless Love Blues" 5
"I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle" 8
1926 "I Ain't Got Nobody" 8
"Lost Your Head Blues" 5
1927 "After You've Gone" 7
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" 17
1928 "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" 13
"Empty Bed Blues" 20
1929 "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" 15

78 RPM Singles — Columbia Records

A-3844 "Gulf Coast Blues" 2/16/1923
A-3844 "Down Hearted Blues" 2/16/1923
A-3877 "Aggravatin' Papa" 4/11/1923
A-3877 "Beale Street Mama" 4/11/1923
A-3888 "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" 4/11/1923
A-3888 "Oh Daddy Blues" 4/11/1923
A-3898 "Keeps on A Rainin All Time" 2/16/1923
A-3898 "Tain't Nobody's Bizness if I Do" 4/26/1923
A-3900 "Outside of That" 4/30/1923
A-3900 "Mama's Got the Blues" 4/30/1923
A-3936 "Bleeding Hearted Blues" 6/14/1923
A-3936 "Midnight Blues" 6/15/1923
A-3939 "Yodeling Blues" 6/14/1923
A-3939 "Lady Luck Blues" 6/14/1923
A-3942 "If You Don't, I Know Who Will" 6/21/1923
A-3942 "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Jelly Roll Like My Man" 6/22/1923
A-4001 "Jail House Blues" 9/21/1923
A-4001 "Graveyard Dream Blues" 9/26/1923
13000 D "Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time" 10/24/1923
13000 D "My Sweetie Went Away" 10/24/1923
13001 D "Cemetery Blues" 9/26/1923
13001 D "Any Woman's Blues" 10/16/1923
13005 D "St Louis Gal" 9/24/1923
13005 D "Sam Jones' Blues" 9/24/1923
13007 D "I'm Going Back to My Used to Be" 10/4/1923
13007 D "Far Away Blues" 10/4/1923
14000 D "Mistreatin' Daddy" 12/4/1923
14000 D "Chicago Bound Blues" 12/4/1923
14005 D "Frosty Mornin' Blues" 1/8/1924
14005 D "Easy Come Easy Go Blues" 1/10/1924
14010 D "Eavesdropper Blues" 1/9/1924
14010 D "Haunted House Blues" 1/9/1924
14018 D "Boweavil Blues" 4/7/1924
14018 D "Moonshine Blues" 4/9/1924
14020 D "Sorrowful Blues" 4/4/1924
14020 D "Rocking Chair Blues" 4/4/1924
14023 D "Frankie Blues" 4/8/1924
14023 D "Hateful Blues" 4/8/1924
14025 D "Pinchbacks, Take 'em Away" 4/4/1924
14025 D "Ticket Agent Easy Your Window Down" 4/5/1924
14031 D "Louisiana Low Down Blues" 7/22/1924
14031 D "Mountain Top Blues" 7/22/1924
14032 D "House Rent Blues" 7/23/1924
14032 D "Work House Blues" 7/23/1924
14037 D "Rainy Weather Blues" 8/8/1924
14037 D "Salt Water Blues" 7/31/1924
14042 D "Bye Bye Blues" 9/26/1924
14042 D "Weeping Willow Blues" 9/26/1924
14051 D "Dying Gambler's Blues" 12/6/1924
14051 D "Sing Sing Prison Blues" 12/6/1924
14052 D "Follow the Deal on Down" 12/4/1924
14052 D "Sinful Blues" 11/11/1924
14056 D "Reckless Blues" 1/14/1925
14056 D "Sobbin' Hearted Blues" 1/14/1925
14060 D "Love Me Daddy Blues" 12/12/1924
14060 D "Woman's Trouble Blues" 12/12/1924
14064 D "Cold in Hand Blues" 1/14/1925
14064 D "St Louis Blues" 1/14/1925
14075 D "Yellow Dog Blues" 5/6/1925
14075 D "Soft Pedal Blues" 5/14/1925
14079 D "Dixie Flyer Blues" 5/15/1925
14079 D "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon" 1/14/1925
14083 D "Careless Love" 5/26/1925
14083 D "He's Gone Blues" 6/23/1925
14090 D "I Ain't Goin' to Play No Second Fiddle" 5/27/1925
14090 D "Nashville Women's Blues" 5/27/1925
14095 D "I Ain't Got Nobody" 8/19/1925
14095 D "J.C.Holmes Blues" 5/27/1925
14098 D "My Man Blues" 9/1/1925
14098 D "Nobody's Blues but Mine" 8/19/1925
14109 D "Florida Bound Blues" 11/17/1925
14109 D "New Gulf Coast Blues" 11/17/1925
14115 D "I've Been Mistreated and I Don't Like It" 11/18/1925
14115 D "Red Mountain Blues" 11/20/1925
14123 D "Lonesome Desert Blues" 12/9/1925
14123 D "Golden Rule Blues" 11/20/1925
14129 D "What's the Matter Now?" 3/5/1926
14129 D "I Want Every Bit of It" 3/5/1926
14133 D "Jazzbo Brown from Memphis Town" 3/18/1926
14133 D "Squeeze Me" 3/5/1926
14137 D "Hard Driving Papa" 05/40/1926
14137 D "Money Blues" 5/4/1926
14147 D "Baby Doll" 5/4/1926
14147 D "Them Has Been Blues" 3/5/1926
14158 D "Lost Your Head Blues" 5/4/1926
14158 D "Gin House Blues" 3/18/1926
14172 D "One and Two Blues" 10/26/1926
14172 D "Honey Man Blues" 10/25/1926
14179 D "Hard Time Blues" 10/25/1926
14179 D "Young Woman's Blues" 10/26/1926
14195 D "Back Water Blues" 2/17/1927
14195 D "Preachin' the Blues" 2/17/1927
14197 D "Muddy Water" 3/2/1927
14197 D "After You've Gone" 3/2/1927
14209 D "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair" 3/3/1927
14209 D "Them's Graveyard Words" 3/3/1927
14219 D "There'll Be a Hot Time in Old Town Tonight" 3/2/1927
14219 D "Alexander's Ragtime Band" 3/2/1927
14232 D "Trombone Cholly" 3/3/1927
14232 D "Lock and Key Blues" 4/1/1927
14250 D "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" 9/27/1927
14250 D "Mean Old Bed Bug Blues" 9/27/1927
14260 D "Sweet Mistreater" 4/1/1927
14260 D "Homeless Blues" 9/28/1927
14273 D "Dyin' by The Hour" 10/27/1927
14273 D "Foolish Man Blues" 10/27/1927
14292 D "I Used to Be Your Sweet Mama" 2/9/1928
14292 D "Thinking Blues" 2/9/1928
14304 D "I'd Rather be Dead and Buried in my Grave" 6/16/1928
14304 D "Pickpocket Blues" 2/9/1928
14312 D "Empty Bed Blues Pt1" 3/20/1928
14312 D "Empty Bed Blues Pt2" 3/20/1928
14324 D "Put It Right Here" 3/20/1928
14324 D "Spider Man Blues" 3/19/1928
14338 D "It Won't Be You" 2/12/1928
14338 D "Standin' in The Rain Blues" 2/12/1928
14354 D "Devil's Gonna Git You" 8/24/1928
14354 D "Yes Indeed He Do" 8/24/1928
14375 D "Washwoman's Blues" 8/24/1928
14375 D "Please Help Me Get Him Off My Mind" 8/24/1928
14384 D "Me and My Gin" 8/25/1928
14384 D "Slow and Easy Man" 8/24/1928
14399 D "Poor Man's Blues" 8/24/1928
14399 D "You Ought to be Ashamed" 8/24/1928
14427 D "You've Got to Give Me Some" 5/8/1929
14427 D "I'm Wild About that Thing" 5/8/1929
14435 D "My Kitchen Man" 5/8/1929
14435 D "I've Got What It Takes" 5/15/1929
14451 D "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" 5/15/1929
14451 D "Take It Right Back" 7/25/1929
14464 D "It Makes My Love Come Down" 8/20/1929
14464 D "He's Got Me Goin'" 8/20/1929
14476 D "Dirty No Gooder's Blues" 10/1/1929
14476 D "Wasted Life Blues" 10/1/1929
14487 D "Don't Cry Baby" 10/11/1929
14487 D "You Don't Understand" 10/11/1929
14516 D "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues" 3/27/1930
14516 D "Keep It to Yourself" 3/27/1930
14527 D "Blue Spirit Blues" 10/11/1929
14527 D "Worn out Papa Blues" 10/11/1929
14538 D "Moan Mourners" 6/9/1930
14538 D "On Revival Day" 6/9/1930
14554 D "Hustlin' Dan" 7/22/1930
14554 D "Black Mountain Blues" 7/22/1930
14569 D "Hot Springs Blues" 3/3/1927
14569 D "Lookin' for My Man Blues" 9/28/1927
14611 D "In the House Blues" 6/11/1931
14611 D "Blue Blues" 6/11/1931
14634 D "Safety Mama" 11/20/1931
14634 D "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" 11/20/1931
14663 D "Long Old Road" 6/11/1931
14663 D "Shipwreck Blues" 6/11/1931

78 RPM Singles — Okeh Records

8945 "I'm Down in the Dumps" 11/24/1933
8945 "Do Your Duty" 11/24/1933
8949 "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" 11/24/1933
8949 "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)" 11/24/1933

Selected awards and recognition[edit]

Grammy Hall of Fame[edit]

Three recordings by Smith were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, an award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance."

Bessie Smith: Grammy Hall of Fame Award[38]
Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted
1923 "Downhearted Blues" Blues (single) Columbia 2006
1925 "St. Louis Blues" Jazz (single) Columbia 1993
1928 "Empty Bed Blues" Blues (single) Columbia 1983

National Recording Registry[edit]

In 2002, Smith's recording of "Downhearted Blues" was included in the National Recording Registry by the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.[39] The board annually selects recordings that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[40]

"Downhearted Blues" was included in the list of Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. It is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock 'n' roll.[41]


Year Inducted Category Notes
2008 Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York
1989 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
1989 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame "Early influences"
1981 Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame
1980 Blues Hall of Fame

In 1984, Smith was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[42]

U.S. postage stamp[edit]

The U.S. Postal Service issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp honoring Smith in 1994.

Digital remastering[edit]

Technical faults in the majority of her original gramophone recordings (especially variations in recording speed, which raised or lowered the apparent pitch of her voice) misrepresented the "light and shade" of her phrasing, interpretation and delivery. They altered the apparent key of her performances (sometimes raised or lowered by as much as a semitone). The "center hole" in some of the master recordings had not been in the true middle of the master disc, so that there were wide variations in tone, pitch, key and phrasing, as commercially released records revolved around the spindle.

Given those historic limitations, the current digitally remastered versions of her work deliver significant improvements in the sound quality of Smith's performances. Some critics believe that the American Columbia Records compact disc releases are somewhat inferior to subsequent transfers made by the late John R. T. Davies for Frog Records.[43]

In popular culture[edit]

The 1948 short story "Blue Melody", by J. D. Salinger, and the 1959 play The Death of Bessie Smith, by Edward Albee, are based on Smith's life and death, but poetic license was taken by both authors; for instance, Albee's play distorts the circumstances of her medical treatment, or lack of it, before her death, attributing it to racist medical practitioners.[44] The circumstances related by both Salinger and Albee were widely circulated until being debunked at a later date by Smith's biographer.[45] HBO released a movie about Smith, Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, on May 16, 2015.[46]

Each June, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga sponsors the Bessie Smith Strut as part of the city's Riverbend Festival.[47][48]


  1. ^ Joel Whitburn's methodology for creating pre-1940s chart positions has been criticized,[37] and those listed here should not be taken as definitive.


  1. ^ "Bessie Smith: Controversy". SparkNotes. October 4, 1937. Retrieved August 30, 2015.
  2. ^ Eagle, Bob; LeBlanc, Eric S. (2013). Blues: A Regional Experience. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. p. 50. ISBN 978-0313344237.
  3. ^ Scott, Michelle R. (2010). Blues Empress in Black culture: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press. p. 152. ISBN 9780252092374.
  4. ^ 1910 US Census, Chattanooga, Hamilton, Tennessee, Ward 7, Enumeration District 0065, Sheet 2B, Family No. 48.
  5. ^ a b c Albertson, Chris (2003). Bessie. New Haven: [Yale University Press]. ISBN 0-300-09902-9.
  6. ^ Jasen, David A.; Jones, Gene (September 1998). Spreadin' Rhythm Around: Black Popular Songwriters, 1880–1930. New York City: Schirmer Books. p. 289. ISBN 978-0-02-864742-5.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Moore, Carman (March 9, 1969). "Blues and Bessie Smith". The New York Times. pp. 262, 270. Retrieved April 27, 2020.
  8. ^ Albertson, 2003, p. 11.
  9. ^ Albertson, 2003, pp. 14–15.
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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]