Bessie Smith was born into poverty sometime around April 15, 1894. Because of the apathy the States Record department had for "Negro" birth records the exact date of her birth is not known. What is known is that Bessie Smith's early years were spent living in a one room shack in a small area of Chattanooga, Tennessee known as Blue Goose Hollow. This one room shack was shared by both of her parents and all of her siblings which at the highest count could have been as many as seven. Bessie Smith did not spend her entire childhood in this shack. Her father, a part time Baptist Minister died when she was an infant and by the time she reached the age of nine her mother and at least two of her brothers had also passed away.
The responsibility of the family was thrown on Viola, Bessie's eldest sister. Viola moved the family into a tenement apartment in a section of Chattanooga known as Tannery Flats. She supported her siblings and her own daughter mainly on the small wages she earned from taking in laundry. This was a common occupation for black women in the south during this time period. The family income was minimally supplemented by the odd jobs that Clarence, the eldest brother in the Smith family, took. By 1904, Clarence left town to join a minstrel troupe and his support left town with him.
Despite the abject poverty that consumed Bessie Smith's childhood, she is noted as having completed school at least to the eighth grade. During this time Bessie is also said to have started her entertainment career. Standing on the corner singing, accompanied by one of her younger brothers, Bessie collected spare change that people passing by threw at them.
In 1912, Clarence came back through Chattanooga with the Moses Stokes Minstrel Troupe. After hearing his sister perform at an amateur night at the Ivory Theatre, he arranged an audition for her with his troupe. Bessie Smith left town with her brother and soon began working closely with Gertrude "Ma" Rainey who was touring with the minstrel troupe. "Ma" Rainey is said to be the Mother of the Blues. She is largely credited with moving the blues away from its traditionally male, country sounds to the more classical, city and women's style that is associated with the Harlem Renaissance, today.
Bessie Smith, very successful, soon moved on (1913) to become a regular performer at the "81" Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. The next few years that she spent on the vaudeville circuit saw her act develop from a small part in a chorus line, to a duo with Hazel Green in 1918 and finally to her own perfected solo act which included not only blues music but comedy as well. Bessie Smith toured the south. She went as far west as Muskogee, Oklahoma and as far up the eastern seaboard as Atlantic City, New Jersey. During these years she married a man named Earl Love. Not much is documented about their marriage. Earl Love died sometime before Bessie finally decided, in 1922, to follow so many of her race north and settle in a northern city, Philadelphia.
As Bessie Smith was developing her act and the population demographics in America were changing, a young artist named Mamie Smith was recording with a new record label. In 1920, Okeh Records, a race record company recorded Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues." The record sold 100,000 copies in its first month of sales. Major record labels realized very quickly that there was an untapped market out there, the black community.
Record companies started sending scouts out by the dozens to black music circuits. Companies like Columbia Records founded race record divisions. Clarence Williams, a composer, pianist, arranger and publisher was the person who discovered Bessie Smith. He had worked with her on the Theatre Owners Booking Association circuit, otherwise known as Tough on Black Asses. He brought Bessie to New York, in 1921, and she made a recording with the Okeh record label. They dismissed her as "too rough." She then recorded for Columbia's race division who followed suit.
Soon after Bessie was rejected by Columbia, they fired that whole division and the man who replaced the head of the division was Frank Walker. Walker first saw Bessie Smith in a gin mill in Selma, Alabama in 1917. With the help of Clarence Williams he brought her back to New York to record again.
This time the recording session was a big success. February 15, 1923, Clarence on the piano, Bessie Smith recorded what was to be her first smash hit, Down Hearted Blues. This tune was actually already recorded by Alberta Hunter and was said to have been "played out." In the first six months of its release it sold 780,000 copies. This was the beginning of an exclusive relationship for the decade, between Bessie Smith and Columbia records. Although she only received $125, for that release, she struck a new deal that would pay her $200 per issued selection. She still made no royalties, but she used these recordings as more of a promotional tool to attract large audiences to her live shows. They came too. Bessie Smith started to make around $2000 a week from her live performances. By 1924, she was the highest paid black entertainer in the country.
During this rise to fame Bessie Smith married again. This time, she married a semi-literate night watchmen, Jack Gee. They married June 7, 1923. He soon quit his job and became Mr. Bessie Smith, a situation that would eventually destroy their marriage. Bessie Smith was an alcoholic and a promiscuous bisexual. Jack Gee was enamored by wealth and a sobering force in Bessie's life although he too led an unfaithful lifestyle. Their relationship fell in to a violent pattern of binge drinking and infidelity--physical fighting--sobriety. Despite all the lavish gifts Bessie gave to Jack their marriage ended violently when Bessie found out that Jack was having an affair and putting her money into his mistress' show.
Bessie Smith paraded through the decade falling in love one last time with a Chicago bootlegger named Richard Morgan. They supported each other and this was an infinantly more healthy relationship. When the depression came and live performance gave way to talking movies, Richard supported Bessie with his still lucrative post-repeal bootlegging business. In the thirties Bessie Smith changed her repertoire, lost the head gear and donned classy evening gowns. She performed more swing music and performed with artists like Count Basie. She was scheduled to perform with Benny Goodman and even to start recording again. But on September 26, 1937 Richard Morgan was driving her to Clarksdale, Mississippi after a show in Memphis, Tennessee. They hit the tail end of a truck and due to severe injuries Bessie Smith died that morning at age 43.
Her grave remained unmarked until Janis Joplin and Juanita Green (the child of a former domestic employee of Bessie Smith) gave her a grave stone on August 7, 1970.
Bessie Smith a southern black woman by birth, aside from her acquired wealth, lived a typical black working class life in the early twenties. Although not prejudice herself, Bessie Smith was staunchly against assimilation and acculturation. She enjoyed playing for "her people" a term she often used. She was a black woman and many working class blacks who could not identify with euro-influenced performers like Josephine Baker, could identify with a bootleggin' corn liquor drinkin' woman, named Bessie Smith. Frank Walker the man who gave Bessie Smith her "shot" is quoted as saying: "When Bessie sang the blues she meant it. Blues were her life." (Bessie Smith Songbook, 6)
Bessie Smith like so may African-Americans of this time especially those migrating north to find better opportunities, did live the blues. Bessie Smith is their voice, their published intellectual. She tells it like it is.