Smith, Bessie

orig. Elizabeth Smith

born April 15, 1898?, Chattanooga, Tenn., U.S.
died Sept. 26, 1937, Clarksdale, Miss.

U.S. blues and jazz singer.

Smith sang popular songs as well as blues on the minstrel and vaudeville stage. She began recording in 1923 and appeared in the film St. Louis Blues (1929). Her interpretations represent the fully realized transition of the rural folk tradition of the blues to its urbane structure and expressiveness. A bold, supremely confident artist with a powerful voice and precise diction, she became known as "Empress of the Blues." Smith was the most successful African American entertainer of her time. She died from injuries sustained in a car crash, and it was said that, had she been white, she would have received earlier medical treatment and her life might have been saved; the actual circumstances of her treatment remain obscure.

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▪ American singer
in full  Elizabeth Smith 
born April 15, 1898?, Chattanooga, Tenn., U.S.
died Sept. 26, 1937, Clarksdale, Miss.

      American singer, one of the greatest of blues vocalists.

      Smith grew up in poverty and obscurity. She may have made a first public appearance at the age of eight or nine at the Ivory Theatre in her hometown. About 1919 she was discovered by Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (Rainey, Ma), one of the first of the great blues singers, from whom she received some training. For several years Smith traveled through the South singing in tent shows and bars and theatres in small towns and in such cities as Birmingham, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; and Atlanta and Savannah, Georgia. After 1920 she made her home in Philadelphia, and it was there that she was first heard by Clarence Williams, a representative of Columbia Records. In February 1923 she made her first recordings, including the classic “Down Hearted Blues,” which became an enormous success, selling more than two million copies. She made 160 recordings in all, in many of which she was accompanied by some of the great jazz musicians of the time, including Fletcher Henderson (Henderson, Fletcher), Benny Goodman (Goodman, Benny), and Louis Armstrong (Armstrong, Louis).

      Bessie Smith's subject matter was the classic material of the blues: poverty and oppression, love—betrayed or unrequited—and stoic acceptance of defeat at the hands of a cruel and indifferent world. The great tragedy of her career was that she outlived the topicality of her idiom. In the late 1920s her record sales and her fame diminished as social forces changed the face of popular music and bowdlerized the earthy realism of the sentiments she expressed in her music. Her gradually increasing alcoholism caused managements to become wary of engaging her, but there is no evidence that her actual singing ability ever declined.

      Known in her lifetime as the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith was a bold, supremely confident artist who often disdained the use of a microphone and whose art expressed the frustrations and hopes of a whole generation of black Americans. Her tall figure and upright stance, and above all her handsome features, are preserved in a short motion picture, St. Louis Blues (1929), banned for its realism and now preserved in the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. She died from injuries sustained in a road accident. It was said that, had she been white, she would have received earlier medical treatment, thus saving her life, and Edward Albee made this the subject of his play The Death of Bessie Smith (1960).

Additional Reading
Paul Oliver, Bessie Smith (1959, reissued 1971); Chris Albertson, Bessie (1972, reissued 1985); Edward Brooks, The Bessie Smith Companion: A Critical and Detailed Appreciation of the Recordings (1982).

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Universalium. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Smith,Bessie — Smith, Bessie. 1894? 1937. photographed in 1936 by Carl Van Vechten (1880 1964) Libraryof Congress Photo: Carl Van Vechten collection American singer and songwriter who became a leading blues performer in the 1920s and made nearly 200 recordings …   Universalium

  • Smith, Bessie — orig. Elizabeth Smith (15 abr. ¿1898?, Chattanooga, Tenn., EE.UU.–26 sep. 1937, Clarksdale, Miss.). Cantante estadounidense de blues y de jazz. Cantaba tanto canciones populares como blues en los minstrel shows y en espectáculos de vodevil. En… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Smith, Bessie — soprannome di Smith, Elizabeth …   Sinonimi e Contrari. Terza edizione

  • Bessie Smith — Saltar a navegación, búsqueda Bessie Smith Bessie Smith fotografiada por Carl Van Vechten Información personal Nombre real …   Wikipedia Español

  • Smith — /smith/, n. 1. Adam, 1723 90, Scottish economist. 2. Alfred E(manuel), 1873 1944, U.S. political leader. 3. Bessie, 1894? 1937, U.S. singer. 4. Charles Henry ( Bill Arp ), 1826 1903, U.S. humorist. 5 …   Universalium

  • smith — /smith/, n. 1. a worker in metal. 2. a blacksmith. v.t. 3. to forge on an anvil; form by heating and pounding: to smith armor. [bef. 900; (n.) ME, OE; c. G Schmied, ON smithr, Goth smitha; (v.) ME smithen, OE smithian; c. ON smitha, Goth… …   Universalium

  • Smith — Smith, Adam Smith, George Smith, Hamilton O. Smith, Ian Douglas Smith, John Smith, Joseph Smith, Theobald Smith, William * * * (as used in expressions) Abigail Smi …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Bessie Smith — Infobox musical artist Name = Bessie Smith Img capt = 1936 photograph by Carl Van Vechten Img size = Landscape = Background = solo singer Birth name = Alias = Born = birth date|mf=yes|1894|4|15 Died = death date and age|mf=yes|1937|9|26|1894|4|15 …   Wikipedia

  • Bessie Smith — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Smith. Bessie Smith …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Bessie Smith — noun United States blues singer (1894 1937) • Syn: ↑Smith • Instance Hypernyms: ↑singer, ↑vocalist, ↑vocalizer, ↑vocaliser * * * Bessie Smith …   Useful english dictionary

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