Known as “The Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith was an imposing figure, who was both the most artistically and commercially successful of the female “Classic” blues singers of the 1920s. Although she had a very robust voice, she was nevertheless capable of conveying great depths of emotion, and this distinguished her from most of her contemporaries, who lacked her control of the nuances of singing. She also borrowed a lot of techniques from early jazz instrumentalists, such as growls and smears, and the process worked in reverse as well, her empathy with Louis Armstrong, and their trading of phrases on many of her records being a particular high point in her recorded catalogue.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she started her career in a touring tent show in 1912, alongside another early blues specialist, Ma Rainey. For a decade she toured in minstrel shows, in medicine shows and on the African American TOBA theatre circuit, before she made her first record Downhearted Blues in 1923. The extraordinary success of this disc not only led her to renegotiate the stingy contract offered to her by pianist Clarence Williams, but to become the best-selling black artist of the 1920s.
Throughout the 1920s, she recorded with many of the era’s finest jazz musicians, including Fletcher Henderson and members of his band, and the the pianist James P. Johnson, with whom she cut her masterpiece Backwater Blues. She was brilliant at playing off the sounds of her instrumental accompanists, notably Henderson’s trombonist Charlie Green (immortalised in the song title Trombone Cholly). We can get an impression of how Bessie must have appeared on stage from her performance in the short film St Louis Blues, made in 1929. Although several runs through this song occur in what is otherwise a simple drama, the centrepiece of the film is a fine performance of it by Bessie, giving some idea of the towering figure she must have cut behind the footlights of 1920s theatres.
Alcoholism and changing fashion damaged her career, but she enjoyed a brief renaissance in the 1930s, masterminded by entrepreneur John Hammond, before her death in 1937 after a motor accident in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where delays in getting her to hospital contributed to the tragedy of her demise at the age of forty-three.