It's a long old road, but I know I'm gonna find the end.
- Bessie Smith
Born in Chattanooga, TN, Bessie Smith sang on street corners, until she was old enough to join a traveling theater company as a dancer in 1912. The Moses Stokes theater company was home to one of the first classic blues singers, Ma Rainey. It was she who taught Bessie about stage presence.
Bessie made her debut with Columbia Records singing Downhearted Blues in the early 1920's. Her recording of St. Louis Blues is considered by critics to be one of the finest from the era.
"The Empress of Blues" was in her early 40's when she passed away from injuries sustained in an auto accident. Her last performance was given in Memphis on Sept. 26, 1937. Late that night, Richard Morgan and Bessie Smith were in a tragic car accident headed South on Highway 61. They never made it to their next destination.
Cynthia Blank-Reid, an associate professor at Drexel University College of Nursing, in Philadelphia, recently reviewed the circumstances of the accident, treatment, and resulting death of the singer. Bessie's fatal crash and the surrounding rumors are clarified, compared and contrasted to the actual treatment and the probable treatment of today.
Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson claim Bessies influence. Her grave was unmarked until 1970. It was Janis Joplin who paid for the gravestone.
(Cover Art - Phil Hays; Picture courtesy of TN History For Kids)