1894 - 1937.

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Bessie Smith

Bessie was born in harsh poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, around 1894. She was one of six children living with her parents in what she would later describe as 'a little ramshachackle cabin'.

Her father, William, a part-time Baptist preacher, died soon after her birth; and mother died when Bessie was nine, she made a living busking.

Her first professional engagement in 1912 with Moses Stokes show. Another member of the cast is Ma Rainey, who will later become famous as 'The Mother of the Blues'.

By 1918 Bessie is a seasoned performer, appearing in many tent and theatre shows.

In 1920, prohibition increases her work opportunities with speakeasies spring up all over the USA and singers and musicians are employed to provide the entertainment at these establishments.

Already married and widowed, in 1922 Bessie appears at the Paradise Gardens, Atlanic City, in a show directed by pianist / bandleader Charlie Johnson. The following year she marries Jack Gee and cuts her first released recordings, 'Down-Harted Blues' and 'Gulf Coast Blues'.

Bessie appears in Chicago, the blues centre of the North, for the first time in 1924. She meets Joe Smith in New York; he becomes her favourite cornet player. The following year she cuts several recordings with Louis Armstrong.

By 1926 public enthusiasm for the blues is declining and Bessie's venues become less prestigious, she begins using more suggestive lyrics in 1927 in an attempt to stem falling interest in her music and records 'Empty Bed Blues' in 1928 which becomes a big hit.

Bessie's recording of 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out' in 1929 seems prophetic of the Wall Street Crash. She also makes her only film, St. Louis Blues.

Although slavery had been officially abolished, economic slavery usually replaced it.

Blacks faced a life of servitude (Bessie's 'Washwoman's Blues' from 1928 deals with the sort of work into which they were forced).

Bessie died near Clarkedale, Mississippi, on 26th September 1937, following injuries suffered in an automobile accident.

It was widely rumoured that her death was the result of her losing blood after she was refused treatment at a white only hospital.

But stronger evidence suggests she was taken directly to the black hospital in Clarksdale where she died of her injuries.

Whatever the true facts were, Bessie's death was given more space in the white press than anything that she did while alive.


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