Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues", was credited with bringing the blues to mainstream music in the 1920s.
Smith was born in 1892 (or 1894 as some census reports, and her family, suggest) in Tennessee. She began performing at a very young age and left her hometown in 1912 to join a traveling vaudeville act put on by Pa and Ma Rainey (#Bi2). Bessie traveled with them, singing and dancing in their show until 1915. Though Smith was only there for three years, she looked up to Ma Rainey as a mentor— her style and performance were greatly influenced by the elder songstress.
After touring on her own for a few years, Smith settled in Philadelphia to start her recording career. Her first recording, “Downhearted Blues” (1923), cemented her place as one of the most popular black artists of her time. Smith has been credited with being the performer responsible for introducing the blues to the mainstream of music in the United States.
Smith was married twice (once by common law), but she is better known for her many extramarital affairs. Smith is rumored to have been in a relationship with Ma Rainey (#Bi2), though it has never been confirmed, however, her involvement with dancer Lillian Simpson was well-known.
Much like her mentor, Smith also spoke her truth in her lyrics in songs such as 1930’s “The Boy in the Boat”;
When you see two women walking hand in hand,
Just look ‘em over and try to understand:
They’ll go to those parties
Have the lights down low
Only those parties where women can go.
In addition, she often sings about being “in the life” in reference to the LGBT lifestyle.
After the Depression, Smith transitioned to a more Swing style in an attempt to keep up with changing musical tastes. She tragically sustained severe injuries in a car crash in September of 1937, and was unable to recover.