For the 1900 census, Bessie Smith's mother, Laura Smith, reported that Bessie was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in July 1892. However, for the following census (1910), taken on April 16, her sister, Viola Smith, and the census taker agreed on or assigned her April 15, 1894, the day preceding the census; that date appears on all subsequent documents, and was the one observed by the entire Smith family. There also remains a census-based debate regarding the size of Bessie Smith's family. The 1870 and 1880 censuses report three older half-siblings, but these census reports are at odds with later interviews with her family and contemporaries.
She was the daughter of Laura (Owens) Smith and William Smith. William Smith was a laborer and part-time Baptist preacher (he was listed in the 1870 census as a minister of the gospel, in Moulton, Lawrence, Alabama) who died before his daughter could remember him. By the time she was nine, she had lost her mother as well, and her older sister Viola was left in charge of caring for her sisters and brother.
As a way of earning money for their impoverished household, Smith and her brother Andrew began performing on the streets of Chattanooga as a duo, she singing and dancing, he accompanying on guitar; their preferred location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of the city's African-American community.
In 1904, her oldest brother, Clarence, covertly left home by joining a small traveling troupe owned by Moses Stokes. "If Bessie had been old enough, she would have gone with him," said Clarence's widow, Maud. "That's why he left without telling her, but Clarence told me she was ready, even then. Of course, she was only a child."
In 1912, Clarence returned to Chattanooga with the Stokes troupe and arranged for its managers, Lonnie and Cora Fisher, to give her an audition. She was hired as a dancer rather than a singer, because the company also included Ma Rainey.
By the early 1920s, Smith had starred with Sidney Bechet in How Come?
, a musical that made its way to Broadway, and spent several years working out of Atlanta, Georgia's 81 Theater, performing in black theaters along the East Coast. Following a run-in with the producer of How Come?
, she was replaced by Alberta Hunter and returned to Philadelphia, where she had taken up residence. There, she met and fell in love with Jack Gee, a security guard whom she married on June 7, 1923, just as her first recordings were being released by Columbia Records. The marriage was a stormy one, with infidelity on both sides. During the marriage, Smith became the biggest headliner on the black Theater Owners Booking Association ( T.O.B.A.) circuit, running a show that sometimes featured as many as 40 troupers and made her the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Gee was impressed by the money, but never adjusted to show business life, and especially not Smith's bisexuality. In 1929, when Smith learned of Gee's affair with another performer, Gertrude Saunders, she ended the marriage, but never sought a legal divorce. Smith eventually found a common-law husband in an old friend, Richard Morgan, who was Lionel Hampton's uncle and the antithesis of her husband. She stayed with him until her death.
All contemporary accounts indicate that Rainey did not teach Smith to sing, but she probably helped her develop a stage presence. Smith began forming her own act around 1913, at Atlanta's "81" Theatre. By 1920 she had established a reputation in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard.
In 1920, sales figures for "Crazy Blues," an Okeh recording by singer Mamie Smith (no relation) pointed to a new market. The recording industry had never aimed its product at blacks, but now the door had been opened and the search for female blues singers was on. Smith was signed by Columbia Records in 1923 when the label decided to establish a "race records" series.
She scored a big hit with her first release, a coupling of "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Downhearted Blues," which its composer, Alberta Hunter had already turned into a hit on the Paramount label. Smith became a headliner on the black T.O.B.A. circuit and rose to become its top attraction in the 1920s. Working a heavy theater schedule during the winter months and doing tent tours the rest of the year (eventually traveling in her own railroad car), Smith became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day. Columbia nicknamed her "Queen of the Blues", but a PR-minded press soon upgraded her title to "Empress".
She made some 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, most notably Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, and Fletcher Henderson.
Smith's career was cut short by a combination of the Great Depression (which all but put the recording industry out of business) and the advent of "talkies", which spelled the end for vaudeville. She never stopped performing, however. While the days of elaborate vaudeville shows were over, Smith continued touring and occasionally singing in clubs. In 1929, she appeared in a Broadway flop called Pansy
, a musical in which, the top critics agreed, she was the only asset.
In 1929, Smith made her only film appearance, starring in a two-reeler titled St. Louis Blues
, based on W. C. Handy's song of the same name. In the film, directed by Dudley Murphy and shot in Astoria, she sings the title song accompanied by members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, the Hall Johnson Choir, pianist James P. Johnson, and a string section — a musical environment radically different from any found on her recordings.
In 1933, John Hammond saw Smith perform in a small Philadelphia club and asked her to record four sides for the Okeh label (which had been acquired by Columbia).
These performances, for which Hammond paid her a non-royalty fee of $37.50 each, were recorded on November 24, 1933. They constitute Smith's final recordings and are of particular interest because Smith was in the process of translating her blues artistry into something more apropos
to the Swing Era.
The accompanying band included such Swing Era musicians as trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, tenor saxophonist Chu Berry, pianist Buck Washington, guitarist Bobby Johnson, and bassist Billy Taylor. Benny Goodman, who happened to be recording with Ethel Waters in the adjoining studio, dropped by for an almost inaudible guest visit. Hammond was not pleased with the result, preferring to have Smith back in her old blues groove, but "Take Me For A Buggy Ride" and "Gimme a Pigfoot" (in which Goodman is part of the ensemble) remain among her most popular recordings.
On September 26, 1937, Smith was severely injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi with her lover (and Lionel Hampton's uncle), Richard Morgan, at the wheel. She was taken to Clarksdale's Afro-American Hospital where her right arm was amputated. She did not regain consciousness, dying that morning.
Smith's funeral was held in Philadelphia on October 4, 1937. It was attended by about seven thousand people, according to contemporary newspaper reports. Far fewer mourners attended the burial at Mount Lawn Cemetery, in nearby Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania. Gee thwarted all efforts to purchase a stone, once or twice even pocketing money raised for that purpose. The grave remained unmarked until August 7, 1970, when a new tombstone was placed, paid for by singer Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who, as a child, had done housework for Smith.
The Afro-American Hospital, now the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, was the site of the dedication of the fourth historic marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Recordings of Bessie Smith were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy Award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."