Singers come and go all the time, but few leave as great a mark as Bessie Smith did. Then again, few people had her brilliant, tragic life. As one of the first Blues stars, Smith changed the course of American culture forever—but in the end, her fame came at a heartbreakingly high price. This is the unforgettable story of Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues.
1. She Had Humble Beginnings
Bessie Smith was born sometime around July, 1892 in Chattanooga, Tennessee to William Urie, a Baptist preacher, and his wife Laura. Yes, this might sound like the beginnings of a rustic fairy tale, but don’t let those details fool you. Within just a few years of her birth, little Bessie was baptized into unimaginable tragedy.
2. She Suffered an Early Tragedy
When Bessie was still just a little girl, her whole world suddenly fell apart. In less than a decade, her father, mother, and one of her brothers all passed, leaving Bessie an orphan before she even hit the tender age of 10. The remaining siblings had to raise themselves—and soon enough, Bessie was pushed into desperate measures.
3. She Fought Tooth and Nail
In order to support her failing family, Bessie quit school and started busking on the streets with her brother Andrew. They took the White Elephant Saloon as their stomping grounds, and it was here that Bessie began to develop her signature dancing and singing while Andrew accompanied her on guitar. Only all was not well in the little brood…
4. Her Brother Abandoned Her
In 1904, when the 12-year-old Bessie was just settling into life as a working woman, her brother dealt her a heartbreaking betrayal. Her oldest brother Clarence snuck out of the house to join the travelling Stokes troupe without telling Bessie; he didn’t want the young, stubborn girl following him. Then, almost a decade later, he came back with an electrifying proposition.
5. She Had the Audition of Her Life
Clarence never forgot about his little sister and her talents, and in 1912, when Bessie had blossomed into a vivacious young woman, he brought his troupe managers to see her for an audition. She must have nailed it, because the Stokes troupe signed her on immediately and rocketed her all the way to stardom. However, there was just one catch.
6. She Had a Powerful Rival
Bessie Smith had an undeniable talent and a once-in-a-lifetime voice—but she didn’t get to use it. See, the Stokes troupe already had a singer, the wildly popular Ma Rainey, AKA “The Mother of the Blues,” and they didn’t want too many divas on the stage. Instead, they relegated Smith to the role of a dancer. Do you smell a rivalry? Well, keep reading.
7. She Had Stiff Competition
When Bessie first met Ma Rainey, Rainey was only a few years older but already at the top of her game, with a full-blown stage presence that could knock the doors off of the nosebleeds. Rainey wore massive wigs, gigantic jewels, and flashy outfits on stage; she even had capped gold teeth. It was enough to make anyone insecure—but Bessie Smith knew exactly what to do.
8. She Learned From an Icon
Bessie Smith hadn’t made it through the mean streets of her childhood without learning a thing or two, and she was one smart cookie about Ma Rainey. Instead of starting a cat fight, Smith began to study the more experienced woman's performances, and many people believe she learned her legendary stage presence from Rainey. Except, well, that wasn’t all she learned...
9. She May Have Had an Illicit Affair
According to rumors, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were more than just friends. Rainey herself was already known to like men as well as women, and some people believe their mentor-mentee relationship turned steamy while they were on the road together in the carousing troupe. Then again, there’s a darker version of events…
10. She Might Have Been Kidnapped
One persistent tale about Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith is less lesbian utopia, more terrifying nightmare. According to this version of events—which their families insistently deny—Rainey grew so attached to Smith that she actually kidnapped her and forced her to join her own troupe, the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels. Whatever the truth, Smith’s formative years went out with a bang.
11. She Had Secret Vices
Smith never lost the appetite for fun she learned under Ma Rainey's ample bosom. Throughout her career, even at the heart of her stardom, Bessie loved to visit "buffet flats," houses of ill-repute where the parties went on all night long, every night of the week. As we'll see, these temptations would get her into a lot of trouble later in life.
12. Audiences Went Wild for Her
When Smith started to make a name for herself on the club circuit, she did it in style. Soon enough, word got around about her amazing voice, so much so that appreciative audience members would often throw money at her on stage, and studio heads began eyeing her up for recordings. The Age of the Empress was just around the corner...until she hit a mortifying roadblock.
13. She Flopped an Audition
One day, Smith auditioned for the prestigious Black Swan Records, which counted famed Black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois on its board of directors. Well, Bessie didn't read the room quite right. While singing in front of the snooty executives, she paused her song to spit, earning herself a dismissal for being "too rough." Ugh, the people who mind don't matter, Bess.
14. She Had a Stunning Victory
Eventually, Columbia records took a chance on our unpolished girl, signing her up for a record deal in 1923. They were not disappointed: Cemetery Blues came out at the end of the year and quickly transformed into a hit. The best part? The uppity Black Swan Records were utterly flabbergasted at her success. But as her career rose, Smith's personal life got very messy.
15. She Had a Strange Taste in Men
Right around the time she put out her first record, Smith met Jack Gee, a security guard who was nothing like the dramatic entertainers she hung out with. Smith must have liked what she saw, though, because she married Gee just a handful of months after meeting him, tying the knot in a ceremony on June 7, 1923. Sadly, they were doomed to a scandalous end.
16. Her Marriage Was Very Rocky
Things didn't even start out well for the newlywed couple. Gee, being a humble nightwatchman, was dazzled by Smith's fame and money, but he also had difficulty understanding her months on the road as well as the other stresses that came with life in show business. This was enough of a strain on the lovebirds, but an even bigger one was yet to come.
17. She Had Extravagant Tastes
Within no time at all, Smith was a household name all across America, and she became the highest-paid African-American entertainer of her day. Did this fame go to her head? You bet it did. After a lifetime of poverty, Bessie wasted no time blowing through the money, even buying her own custom-made, 72-foot railroad car to travel in. And oh, the things that railroad car saw.
18. She Was Unfaithful
Having a successful marriage in the spotlight is a hefty feat, but fame seemed to turn Bessie and Jack ugly overnight. Jack cheated on his wife constantly, and Bessie went and had illicit trysts right back, until they were trading partners like they were on a merry-go-round. And then there was the little matter of who Bessie was having an affair with...
19. She Liked Girls
As complicated as Smith’s romantic life might already seem, there is still more to the story. See, Smith never quite forgot the "lessons" she might have learned from Ma Rainey, and she kept up a string of relationships with women throughout her marriage to Gee. The traditional, humble Jack could barely stand this...so it's good he didn't know half of what comes next.
20. She Manipulated Women
Smith had a type: Young, impressionable, and totally under her sway. She loved to take up with the dancers in her own shows and flex her power—and the results were disturbing. One day, when her latest chorus girl refused to kiss her in public, Smith sniped, "I got twelve women on this show and I can have one every night if I want it. Don't you feel so important."
21. She Made a Great Escape
When it came to his wife's Sapphic tastes, Jack got one rude awakening. One night, he paid a "surprise visit" to Bessie while she was touring with her chorus girls, only to find her in bed with one of them. Reportedly, the two women jumped right out of the sack, with Bessie taking refuge in a neighboring room until her furious husband went away.
22. She Struggled With Personal Demons
For all that Smith loved to engage with her sensual side, she had a different and much more destructive vice: drinking. Ever since she was a teenager, Smith had started downing glasses at an alarming rate, and by the time she became a star, her habit had become a serious problem. She struggled with the addiction for the rest of her life, and it brought nothing but trouble.
23. She Made a Desperate Attempt to Fix Her Marriage
During her less-than-stellar marriage to Gee, Smith somehow decided there was only one thing that would fix their union...adopting a child. Sometime in the relationship, they started informally caring for a six-year-old boy they renamed Jack, Jr. Anyone could tell you that this was not a good idea, but as we'll see, Bessie had to learn that the hard way.
24. She Was a Horrific Girlfriend
If you're getting the sense that Bessie was about as good a girlfriend as she was a wife, you'd be right. She was terrified that Jack would find out more about her philandering with her underlings, and she often threatened to fire the girls if they ever spoke a peep about their midnight bedroom romps. This cruelty eventually reached a terrifying climax.
25. She Attacked Her Husband
During the time that Bessie was sleeping with her chorus girls...Jack was also sleeping with her chorus girls. When Bessie found out that he'd seduced a latest mistress, she tracked the girl down, beat her up, and threw her off the stationary railroad car. But she wasn't done yet: Smith then picked up a pistol, tracked Jack down, and fired at him until he ran off the tracks.
26. She Faced Down a Terrifying Enemy
Sometimes, Smith’s rough personality came in handy. On one occasion, members of the Ku Klux Klan showed up at one of her shows and surrounded the tent she was staying in to try and intimidate her. Smith's response was legendary. She simply charged out of the tent and yelled, “You just pick up them sheets and run!” That's exactly what they did.
27. Her Husband Mistreated Her
Everyone could see that Smith and Gee were headed nowhere fast, but no one predicted just how dire things would get. They'd always been sinful mirrors of each other, and Gee was just as violent with Smith as she was with him. Eventually, things were so bad, domestic conflicts made their way into her songs, something that was unheard of at the time. And then the final straw came.
28. She Had a Violent Breakup
In 1929, Smith discovered that Gee was having yet another affair—but this one cut deep. The lucky girl was one of her rival singers, Gertrude Saunders, and there was no fury like Bessie Smith. Smith attacked Saunders not once but twice, sending her into a nervous breakdown. When the dust settled, Smith finally walked away from Gee and never came back. But Jack had other plans in mind.
29. Her Husband Took Cruel Revenge
You’d think that once the couple split up and they both moved on, there would be no hard feelings between them, right? Not even close. Gee held such a grudge against his ex-wife that he turned her beloved adopted son Jack into the authorities. But that's not even the worst part. To justify the move, Gee claimed Smith mistreated the boy, and demanded she lose custody. Unfortunately, this story doesn't have a happy ending.
30. She Lost Her Son
The courts agreed with the good-for-nothing Gee, and they tore the boy from Smith's side, initially placing him with her older sister Viola. Perhaps Smith thought he could have had a good life there, but it wasn't to be. Later on, a ruling put Jack, Jr. back with his biological father, a neglectful man who often forgot to even feed his son. Smith's life was on a downward turn, and it wasn't stopping any time soon.
31. Her Marriage Haunted Her
When Smith and Gee split up in 1929, they made a strange decision. Despite their mutual hatred and all of Gee's machinations, they never actually divorced or made the split official. Whether this was out of personal pain or just an aversion to paperwork, it was still a big mistake. As we'll see, this decision came back to haunt Smith in the worst way possible.
32. She Had a Brutal Downfall
In the midst of Smith's personal heartache, the Great Depression changed everything. The public largely stopped spending money on records, and the-once extravagant singer soon found herself out of a recording job. Smith tried to grind out live performances in clubs and capture that old magic of the Roaring 20s, but a very different chapter of her life had already begun.
33. She Met a New Flame
There were bright spots in Smith's life around this time, including a new romance. Around the 1930s, she reconnected with her longtime friend Richard Morgan, eventually living with him and entering into a common-law marriage. By all accounts, this was finally the relationship that Bessie deserved...yet in the end, she had precious little time to enjoy it.
34. She Was Missing Something
When Smith was starting out, she didn't put any fanfare into her performances at all, not even when she was performing in flashy vaudeville acts. If she was lacking stage presence, though, it's easy to see why. The poor girl didn't have so much as an outfit to perform in, and she would just get up on stage in her street clothes.
35. She Was a Film Star
Today, we have something very precious to remember Bessie Smith by: A single film. In 1929, she made the film St. Louis Blues, a dramatization of the song of the same name. Today, it is the only footage of Smith in existence, and gives us a window into her electric performances. Given her tragic and untimely end, footage like that is absolutely priceless.
36. She Had Ulterior Motives
Sure, Bessie's custom train let her engage in a life of delicious sin across the 50 states, but it also had a secret purpose that was much different than revelry. During Smith's fame, America was still in the throes of segregation, and having the train meant that she would never have to degrade herself and pay attention to the white man's laws. Heck yes.
37. She Made Strange Demands
Smith was an incredible performer with a whole arsenal of tricks up her sleeve, but there was one simple thing she refused to use. She was so confident in her own voice that she rejected the use of a microphone when creating her music, since she had no interest in letting anything interfere with the natural sound of her voice.
38. She Caused a Controversy
For all that she's a legend now, Bessie Smith caused absolute scandal wherever she went back in her day. Her lyrics, which dealt with social issues, racial struggles, and female sexuality, scandalized "polite" white society at the time and earned her more than a few protests when her songs came out. Hey, if you're not making someone angry, you're not doing it right.
39. She Sang With the Greats
Trust me when I say that Bessie Smith went toe-to-toe with the greats. As much as she could come to angry blows with her fellow performers, she could also collaborate with genius like no one else. Over the course of her career, she played with jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Fletcher Henderson, just to name a few.
40. She Almost Had a Different Name
Today, Smith is famous as the "Empress of the Blues," but her nickname could have been much different. When Columbia records gave her the iconic moniker, they initially considered naming her "The Queen of the Blues" instead. Obviously, they eventually decided to give her a promotion, which was definitely the right choice for the pampered, headstrong Bessie.
41. She Almost Made a Comeback
Despite the rough years that she went through, Smith was no quitter. In the late 1930s, she began preparing to make her big comeback. She worked on new material, signed a new recording contract, and began to discuss the possibility of appearing in a second movie. The future was looking bright for Smith—until one tragic incident changed everything.
42. She Got Into a Fatal Crash
On September 26, 1937, Bessie was driving along the road with her partner Richard Morgan at the wheel. Out of nowhere, Morgan misjudged the speed of a truck and side-swiped the massive vehicle on the passenger side—exactly where Bessie was sitting. In the aftermath, Morgan realized he was completely uninjured, but the same couldn’t be said for the Empress of the Blues.
43. She Became Unrecognizable
When a doctor arrived on the scene of the accident, he witnessed a horrific sight. Smith was lying in the middle of the road with unspeakably grave injuries. Her right arm had been almost completely severed by the impact, and she was losing a deluge of blood and descending into shock right in front of his eyes. He had to do something fast.
44. People Tried to Save Her Life
Frantic, the doctor transferred the singer over to the shoulder of the road in an attempt to keep her safe from oncoming traffic. He then asked another bystander to go call an ambulance, all while Bessie Smith's soul hung in the balance. The next moments of her life were crucial—but they also nearly caused another fatality.
45. She Got Supremely Unlucky
For all the Providence she’d received in her life up until that point, God was not on Bessie Smith’s side that day. Just as the bystanders moved her over to the shoulder of the road and went to get help, another car came speeding by and crashed into the wreck, just narrowly missing Smith’s body. By the time help came, she was stubbornly clinging to life.
46. She Met a Controversial End
Here we come to the most contested and tragic seconds of Bessie’s Smith’s fate. Because two ambulances actually arrived—one from a Black hospital, and one from a whites-only facility. According to an urban legend, Smith went to the whites-only hospital and they turned her away, causing her to lose precious seconds of her fading life. This is likely untrue—but her last moments on Earth were even more tragic.
47. She Fought for Her Life
Attendants rushed the Empress to G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where she spent the entire evening fighting for her life with her trademarked determination. Doctors even amputated her right arm in the battle to save her…but it was all for naught. Bessie Smith passed the next morning without ever having regained consciousness.
48. Her Death Shocked the World
When the news hit, it devastated Smith's adoring fans. An estimated 10,000 grieving mourners showed up for her funeral; so many that they had to move the service to a larger venue than they originally planned. Although Smith had lost favor with the public throughout the 1930s, they never truly forgot her. But that didn't mean she had a peaceful rest.
49. Her Husband Gave Her One Last Insult
Despite the outpouring of love for Smith after her tragic end, she came to rest in an unmarked grave not good enough for a pauper. The reason for this is chilling. Jack Gee was still her official husband, and he refused to buy a stone to mark her burial. Even worse, he went so far as to pocket the money her friends raised to honor her. Don't worry, though: Bessie eventually got what she deserved.
50. She Had a Famous Admirer
None other than Janis Joplin was a huge fan of Bessie Smith, and I do mean huge. Joplin honestly believed she was the reincarnation of Smith, and she went to great lengths to prove her devotion. Over 30 years after the car crash, Joplin put up her own money and finally got Smith a gravestone. Its epitaph now reads, “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World.” Rest in Peace, indeed.