Bessie Smith (April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937) was an American blues singer.
Sometimes referred to as The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and, along with Louis Armstrong, a major influence on subsequent jazz vocalists.
Back in 1912, Bessie Smith sang in the same show as Ma Rainey, who took her under her wing and coached her. Although Rainey would achieve a measure of fame throughout her career, she was soon surpassed by her protégée.
She scored a big hit with her first release, a coupling of "Gulf Coast Blues" and “Downhearted Blues”. Even on her first records in 1923, her passionate voice overcame the primitive recording quality of the day and still communicates easily to today's listeners.
At a time when the blues were in and most singers were being dubbed “blues singers”, Bessie Smith simply had no competition.
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 160 recordings for Columbia.
Although she was dropped by Columbia in 1931 and made her final recordings on a four-song session in 1933, Bessie Smith kept on working. She played the Apollo in 1935 and substituted for Billie Holiday in the show Stars Over Broadway. The chances are very good that she would have made a comeback, starting with a Carnegie Hall appearance at John Hammond's upcoming From Spirituals to Swing concert, but she was killed in a car crash in Mississippi.