Bessie Smith Bessie Smith
Listen to Bessie!
You gotta give me some (437 kb)

Bessie Smith is known as the Empress of the Blues, and she still holds the title even more than 70 years after her death in 1937.

Bessie Born poor somewhen between 1894 and 1898 - the exact date is uncertain - Bessie Smith started out as a street musician in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1912 she was discovered by the already famous Ma Rainey who asked Bessie to join her travelling show as a dancer and a singer.

Bessie stayed with Ma Rainey's travelling show until 1915 when she joined the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit and eventually built up her own following in the south and along the east coast.

Those were the heydays of the classic blues, the times when the stars of the vaudeville began to record - the reportedly first recording of a black American was 'Crazy Blues' by the fabulous Mamie Smith (not related with Bessie Smith) in 1920. Odd enough, the talent scouts looking for more female singers like Mamie Smith considered the voice of Bessie Smith as 'too rough' to be recorded.

Nevertheless, by the early 1920s Bessie Smith was one of the most popular Blues singers in vaudeville, and in 1923 she got the first chance to record a song with Columbia records. Accompanied by Clarence Williams on piano, Bessie recorded "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Down Hearted Blues." Although the record was released without special promotion it sold more than 750,000 copies that year, a remarkable number for that time.

Listen to Bessie! Gulf Coast Blues (491 kb)


In the mid-twenties she toured the entire south and most of the major northern citites, always as the star attraction on the bill. She was the highest paid Black entertainer in the country at the time, made up to $2000 a week, while her records all were bestsellers.

Bessie Smith recorded about 160 songs for Columbia between 1923 and 1931, some of them were her own compositions proving that she never forgot were she came from. She wrote 'Back Water Blues' after witnessing a flood destroy homes and property, 'Poor Man's Blues' lamenting the differences between the haves and have-nots in America in the 1920s - and on 'Mama's Got the Blues' she preferred the virility of black men over 'brown-skinned' ones.

Listen! take it right back (540 kb)

BessieBessie Smith became a cultural symbol for her black fans who saw much more in her than just a blues singer. She represented the triumph over white domination in the entertainment business, hope for oppressed women and a shining light for countless other singers. She really had proven that it did not necessarily need a door to crush through a wall.

Bessie was a raunchy and excessive woman, exuberant in her boldness and self-determination. She did just whatever pleased her, led a wild life and whoever tried to cheat or exploit her would have a painful encounter with her fists. Her biggest vice was her heavy drinking, which later was taken as a reason for the decline of her career after 1931.

BessieFact was that the classic blues era was over and the public taste had changed to the more polished mainstream swing. She continued touring the South for her faithful fans, but cut her last recording in 1933.

On September 27, 1937 Bessie Smith had a car accident on the road to Memphis, just around the time when there were plans for her to record again. The accident just crushed her left arm and her ribs, but she bled to death by the time she reached the hospital.

Listen! Gimme a Pigfoot.. (558 kb)

Fortunately, almost all of Bessie's recording are still available today. Below is a collection that covers her complete works that you can order right now at

Bessie Smith Complete Recordings 1
Bessie Smith:
The Complete Recordings Vol. 1
Bessie Smith Complete Recordings 2
Bessie Smith:
The Complete Recordings Vol. 2
Bessie Smith Complete Recordings 3
Bessie Smith:
The Complete Recordings Vol. 3
Bessie Smith Complete Recordings 4
Bessie Smith:
The Complete Recordings Vol. 4
Bessie Smith Complete Recordings 5
Bessie Smith:
The Complete Recordings Vol. 5