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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Bessie Smith

b. 1892 or 1894, Chattanooga, Tennessee; d. 1937, Clarksdale, Mississippi

Among the greatest of all blues vocalists, Bessie Smith was already an established star on the southern vaudeville circuit when she made her first recording in 1923, “Downhearted Blues.” The song was an overnight sensation in the new market for “race” music, selling more than two million copies. From that time until around 1928, when her output slowed, the “Empress of the Blues” made more than 160 recordings, accompanied by important jazz instrumentalists like Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Her vocal artistry set the standard for her time, and her forthright delivery of candid sexual lyrics had a liberatory effect felt to this day. Her earthy performance style is preserved in the 1929 film St. Louis Blues. Smith died from injuries sustained in a car accident in Mississippi; the possibility that she died in a white hospital while awaiting transfer to a facility that would treat blacks inspired Edward Albee’s play, The Death of Bessie Smith (1960).