Rosa Parks

Bessie Smith

By Katelyn Nolan

Biography Page

Bessie Smith was born Elizabeth Smith on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was one of seven children. Her father, a Baptist minister, died soon after her birth, leaving her mother to raise her and her siblings. Around 1906, her mother and two of her brothers died and Smith and her remaining siblings were raised by their aunt.     In 1912, Smith began performing as a dancer and a singer in the Moses Stokes minstrel show, and soon thereafter in the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, of which blues vocalist Ma Rainey was a member Smith had settled down and was living in Philadelphia, and in 1923 she met and married a man named Jack Gee.   Smith and Williams recorded two songs, “Gulf Coast Blues” and “Down Hearted Blues,” which sold more than 750,000 in its first year of release. Following her debut success, Columbia Records promoted her as “Queen of the Blues,” but the press soon upgraded her nickname to “Empress of the Blues.”   That same year, she was discovered by a representative from Columbia Records, with whom she signed a contract and made her first song recordings. Bessie Smith’s career began to flounder, due in part to the financial ravages of the Great Depression and her increasingly serious alcoholism.   In 1929 she and Jack Gee permanently separated, and by the end of 1931 Smith had stopped working with Columbia altogether. In 1933, Smith was brought back from semi-obscurity by producer John Hammond, who contracted her to make new recordings backed by a band that included jazz legend Benny Goodman. The recordings hint at the coming Swing Era and mark Smith’s return to the spotlight. Over the next few years, Smith continued to tour, hoping to recapture her earlier success and to take advantage of the growing popularity of swing. Richard Morgan, when he sideswiped a truck and lost control of their car. Smith was thrown from the vehicle and badly injured. She was reportedly refused treatment at a "whites...