"No time to marry, no time to settle down; I'm a young woman, and I ain't done runnin' aroun'." -Bessie Smith, "Young Woman's Blues"
Before Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald there was Bessie Smith, American Blues Singer.
Born one of seven children on April 15, 1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith grew up to become an American Icon. Against all odds and facing immense adversity, she became the most successful female blues singer of her time.
Bessie lost both her parents at a very young age. Left in the care of an abusive older sister, her brother, Clarence, left home in 1904 to tour with a small theater group. He wanted to help his younger sister and persuaded the managers to give Bessie an audition, and they gave her a job as a back up dancer.
The company's cast included Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. Ma was a tremendously popular, established entertainer and blues singer that grew to care for Bessie. She took her under her wing and showed her the ropes of show business.
But Bessie was born with a boat-load of her own talent. With her strong, expressive voice, she was eventually singing solo, and bringing down the house for a legion of adoring fans.
Bessie Smith was both talented and fearless. Born female and a minority, she was also openly bisexual. She smoked and drank like a man, took care of her whole family (even her abusive, older sister), handled her own money and generally did whatever she damn pleased. This was 1920, not 2020. Fearless.
By the early 1920's, Bessie had settled in Pennsylvania, and in 1923 she met and married Jack Gee.
Jack helped promote Bessie, and she signed a contract with Columbia Records that same year. Among these first recordings was a track titled "Downhearted Blues". The record sold an estimated 800,000 copies!
During her recording career, Bessie worked with many influential jazz musicians, including legendary artist Louis Armstrong. With her powerful, soulful voice she became the most popular blues singer of the 1920's.
Eventually, her husband bought them a private railroad car, and had it painted saying, "Jack Gee presents Bessie Smith and Her Harlem Frolics of 1927."
Bessie set the style for jazz and blues singers of her day and her influence continues today. Decades after Bessie's death, Janis Joplin often acknowledged Bessie's influence on her, and indirectly, many artists who came after her.