Distinguished Women of Past and Present


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Bessie Smith

From: United States: Tennessee
Fields: Music
Key Words/Phrases: blues singer
Smith, Bessie (1894?-1937), American singer, known as the Empress of the Blues. Born in poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she was aided in her career by Ma Rainey, one of the best known of the early women blues singers. After touring in the South, Smith went to New York City in 1923 and recorded with leading jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, James P. Johnson, and Benny Goodman. Gifted with a deep, expressive voice of remarkable intensity and power, she became the most popular blues singer of her time, reportedly earning $2000 a week at the peak of her career. When American taste veered to radio and Hollywood movie music in the 1930s, her following fell off. Increasingly addicted to alcohol, Smith still managed to tour and fill singing engagements. She died in Clarksdale, Mississippi, after an automobile accident. See also Blues; Jazz.

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