Smith, Bessie, 1894–1937,
American singer, b. Chattanooga, Tenn. About 1910 Smith became the
protégée of Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, one of the earliest blues
singers. After working in traveling shows she went to New York City, where
she made (1923–28) recordings, accompanied by such outstanding
artists as Louis Armstrong,
Fletcher Henderson, and James P. Johnson. She quickly became the favorite
singer of the jazz public. The power and somber beauty of her voice, coupled
with songs representing every variety of the blues, earned her the title
“Empress of the Blues.” Around 1928, changing popular taste
and her growing alcoholism led to a decline in her popularity. Though she
continued to tour, her last years were embittered. She died after an
automobile accident while on tour in Mississippi; controversy has surrounded
the circumstances of her death, with it originally reported that she was
denied admittance to a white hospital. Numerous critics regarded her as
among the greatest of all jazz artists, and her fame increased enormously
after her death.
See biographies by P. Oliver (1961) and C. Albertson (rev. ed. 2003).
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