The Blues Foundation

Blues Hall of Fame - 024 - Bessie Smith

December 6, 2017

We continue the series with Bessie Smith, the Empress of The Blues.

Bessie Smith wasn’t born into royalty. She had to work her way up. But, she had the talent and she most certainly had the determination to overcome her humble origins.

At 9 years of age, Bessie was orphaned and earning money for food by singing with her older brother on street corners in Chattanooga, TN. He ran away to pursue a better life with a vaudeville troupe, but he eventually returned to get her when she was 18. Bessie auditioned to be a singer, but was assigned the role of a dancer because the troupe already had a star vocalist: blues legend Ma Rainey.

But it worked out very well for Bessie. Ma liked her and she helped Bessie get her act together. She showed Bessie how to work crowds and put on a show. After embarking on her own, Bessie Smith became the biggest star on the black theater circuit and she grew to become one of the biggest stars in the world. Some even say that her ventures into other mediums such as Broadway and film, coupled with her controversial romances and tumultuous private life, became the blueprint for the modern rockstar.

Bessie has 3 songs in the Grammy Hall of Fame. "Down Hearted Blues" is included in the Songs of The Century by the Recording Industry of America and was inducted in the RnR Hall of Fame as one of the 500 songs that shaped RnR.

Bessie Smith was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980. Since then she has been inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame, The RnR Hall of Fame, received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and has also been inducted in to the Jazz Hall of Fame.

This is her story.